Juan Cole has a reasoned “Open Letter to the Left on Libya” churning through the web in which he explains why he strongly endorses the US-led intervention in Libya. In my own case, I understand why the President made the call he did because the costs — geopolitically and morally — of standing by while tens of thousands were likely to be massacred were unbearable and considered to be more of a risk than action against Gaddafi.
I am uncomfortable about some of the issues that Juan Cole discounts — particularly the precedent of this intervention. It is this ‘discomfort’ among some in the Obama team which is keeping them on a track of insisting on a minimal US footprint in this action and a “disciplined hand-off.” A senior White House official told me that President Obama pushes the importance of this ‘hand-off’ in every key meeting on Libya.
But in the spirit of Juan Cole’s call for a reasoned and civil discussion, let me add something of great concern that is not on his list: the geopolitical distraction of Libya vs. more important foreign policy concerns.
The gravity-defying diplomatic feat that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and US Ambassador to the UN Susan Rice pulled off in getting the Arab League to step forward on Libya followed by a UN Security Council Resolution with zero no votes and five abstentions is a real score for the US and its allies. However, the diplomatic chits traded, effort spent, behind the scenes deals made to achieve this were most likely fairly significant. Thousands of lives saved. So far, no Somalia-like repeat after the bombing began. Mostly good.
However, the nation of real rather than imagined national security consequence to the U.S. in the region is Egypt. Richard Haass of the Council on Foreign Relations and others — including myself — are worried about the ‘bandwidth’ of the White House to deal with multiple major challenges at the same time. Libya will soon be NATO protectorate and focus of significant attention — adding some ‘stretch marks’ to the stress NATO members are already feeling on Afghanistan.
But what of Egypt which is going through extraordinary changes in turbo time? Senior officials in the Department of State tell me “we are on it.” And I believe they are in the sense of working with Egyptian authorities to offer counsel on strategies to transform the Constitution and set the terms for significantly broader political stakeholding in the country — but there is no doubt that the system that President Obama has established for exhaustively internally inclusive national security decision making has less space for Egypt today than Libya.
And on top of that, the world which harbors a lot of doubts about America’s ability to really achieve the objectives it sets out for itself sees an already militarily over-extended America adding to its ‘to do’ list. This means allies naturally count on America less to help them in times of need and thus adjust to have less dependence on the US — and foes move their agendas.
Jump to North Korea.
The Aspen Institute Germany, based in Berlin, is holding over this weekend a meeting of former US government officials — including some former Cabinet level officials — and North Koreans on the subject of denuclearization and bilateral relations.
According to one of the US attendees, the North Koreans ‘wanted’ this meeting to put forward expectations they have of the United States — wanting to trade resumption of nuclear negotiations for US inputs of food, fuel, and economic support over the next year. 2012 is a very big year of transition and consolidation for North Korea. 2012 is the 100th anniversary of the birth of Kim Il Sung and has been marked by the North Korean government as the pivot year for North Korea’s “economic revival.”
At the same time, the former US official attending these talks told me that North Korea is watching the Western intervention in Libya and seeing the lesson that forfeiting nuclear weapons was a mistake made by Moammer Gaddafi. North Korea and many other nations are seeing that if one acquires nukes, keep them. They are the only ultimate security these regimes can count on in collisions with the West.
This official said that we are likely to see more unpredictable behavior and saber-rattling from North Korea as it reminds of its hard edge and it manipulates the fears of its neighbors by rationally deploying what appears to outsiders an erratic irrationality.
Obama felt he had to intervene in Libya. Juan Cole and Anne-Marie Slaughter and many of my progressive friends have been cheerleaders for this move. I accept what the administration has done — but want to move out of the action as soon as possible.
But in any tally, we need to add to the negative roster that we have sent the signal to nations that nukes are a great security blanket and don’t be fooled by the West in giving them up.
And secondly, whether it is Egypt, Iran, Pakistan, North Korea, or China — there are other high stakes games afoot in the world to which America must be attentive and have White House bandwidth to cover.
As one Chinese strategist told me a few years ago when I asked him what China’s grand strategy was, “China’s grand strategy is to figure out ways to keep you Americans distracted in small Middle Eastern countries.”
Although jesting with me, this Chinese strategist spoke a truth American strategists and national security officials need to keep in mind.
– Steve Clemons