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February 10, 2012

Has the US Gotten Its Groove Back in the Middle East?
Posted by Michael Cohen

How-Stella-Got-Her-Groove-Back-thumb-560xauto-24333Over the past couple of days a rather odd argument has developed around the question of international intervention in Syria - namely, that the whole process, and in fact US diplomacy in the region, has somehow been undermined by the heavy-handed manner in which the US and its NATO allies worked to topple Qaddafi in Libya.

Here's Stephen Walt's take:

Russia and China . . . supported Resolution 1973 back in 2011, and then watched NATO and a few others make a mockery of multilateralism in the quest to topple Qaddafi. The Syrian tragedy is pay-back time, and neither Beijing nor Moscow want to be party to another effort at Western-sponsored "regime change." Our high-handed manipulation of the SC process in the case of Libya may have made it harder to gain a consensus on Syria, which is arguably a far more important and dangerous situation.

Josh Foust makes a similar point and then says this:

The failure to gain international buy-in to do something -- not necessarily militarily but some response -- to the atrocities there is a direct consequence of interventionists ignoring politics in their rush to do good. Unfortunately, the people of Syria are now paying the price, and will continue to do so.

Walter Russell Mead and Scott Horton make much the same arguments. Now I should start off by saying that I was critical of US and NATO efforts in Libya and I am highly dubious about the efficacy of intervention in Syria so I'm sympathetic to the overall sentiments of these writers.

But having said I, generally speaking, find their arguments sort of ludicrous. I suppose it makes sense that Russia and China were angered about the way that NATO expanded its US mandate to topple Qaddafi, but the notion that Moscow and Beijing were surprised by this hardly seems credible. Even if Russia was shocked, shocked that NATO went further then a narrow mandate on Libya does anyone really believe that they would have then turned around and authorized a foreign military intervention in Syria - a country where Russia has very specific and long-standing strategic and economic interests.

And even if Security Council Resolution on Syria had passed it did not directly authorize the use of force and even if it did there is to date, no country that has signalled a great willingness to send troops to Syria. It likely would have changed very little on the ground. (I also can't help note the irony of complaints about the Syrian people "paying the price" over Libya being made by individuals who would have had the West do nothing in Libya).

The more obvious assessment of what happened in the UNSC is that Russia and China are using their "surprise" about Libya as an excuse for taking the morally dubious position of defending the heinous Assad regime - a position the Russians are trying somewhat half-heartedly to walk back. That otherwise intelligent US commentators are parroting the self-serving arguments of a couple of semi-authoritarian regimes like these two is a real head-scratcher.

Indeed, a more clear-eyed view of this situation might suggest that both China and Russia have not only played this whole situation rather poorly - they've been outfoxed by the United States. As Paul Bonicelli points out over at Foreign Policy, "The stance the Russians and the Chinese are taking hinders them from attaining the very goal they seek: to be seen as legitimate world leaders on par with the U.S. and the EU." 

Being on the same side as fading dictators like Assad is not exactly a high growth diplomatic strategy or one that will improve the political standing of either Moscow or Beijing. Both nations now look both isolated and even worse water carriers for some of the most loathsome regimes in the world. This is almost certainly why Russia is trying now to spearhead a diplomatic initiative with Damascus. If one didn't know better they might conclude that this whole bit of UN diplomacy has been a bit of a miscalculation for them.

For the United States, simply pushing the issue of a UNSC resolution on Syria, not to mention its actions around supporting democracy movements in Libya, Egypt and Tunisia have had the precise opposite effect. Today the US finds itself in a much more advantageous diplomatic position in the region. It's not hard to imagine this will help the US build regional coalitions in the Middle East to isolate Iran, but also in the Far East to contain Chinese regional ambitions. And much of this has been accomplished by the United States leading from behind and by working in concert with like-minded allies

Broadly speaking after the diplomatic wreckage of the Bush years the United States has, for the most part, shown itself to be a friend of democracy in the Arab world - and at a rather opportune time.

To be sure, all of this is now possible not despite the US intervention in Libya, but because of it. 

Go back one year. You had democratic movements emerging across the Arab world - in Egypt, Tunisia and potentially Syria. How would it have looked for the US to have turned its back on anti-Qaddafi rebels then? We can't know the answer for sure, but one can hardly blame the Administration for viewing with great concern the possibility that US inaction in the face of a potential humanitarian catastrophe directed at the Libyan people would significantly have tarnished the US image in the region and left the US on the wrong side of an incipient democratic movement in the Middle East. 

For the United States to have done nothing in Libya might not only have short-circuited the Arab Spring but also left the US in the unenviable position of being where Russia is today - at least indirectly on the side of the region's dictators. (Can you imagine how hard it would have been for the US to diplomatically throwdown on Syria if they had nothing on Libya?)

By acting when it did and how it did the US consolidated its own position in the Arab world and strength end the emerging role of the Arab League as an organization dedicated to speaking and acting out against the more brutal dictators in its midst. Again, this isn't a perfect story. It doesn't excuse how the Obama Administration played fast and loose with congressional approval of the Libya operation; or the continued instability in Libya - and US dealings with the government in Bahrain and Yemen, to a not insignificant degree, undermine this argument. But the overall story is a positive one - and speaks to an improved US image in the region that would have been unimaginable three years ago. And it's been done at a rather minimal political and military cost. 

Libya was a very rare and extraordinary circumstance in which the stars aligned in favor of military intervention. It's not one that can be easily replicated in Syria; but that doesn't mean it hasn't proven beneficial to US interests - and hopefully over the long run those of the Arab world. In the end, critics seemingly obsessed with proving that the Libyan intervention was a mistake should perhaps broaden their perspective a bit.

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