Foreign Policy and War On The Fly

March 26, 2011

Foreign Policy and War On The Fly

by Patrick W. Ryan

The tide of revolt that has swept the Arab World in the last two months has been stunning in scope, intensity and importance. From the Atlantic Ocean to the Persian Gulf autocratic regimes have been shaken and some have fallen in an historic reformation of how Arab countries will manage their affairs. This transformation, dubbed an “Arab Spring,” has also stunned foreign policy making institutions in the United States as America’s values and interests are increasingly at odds with each other.

Tunisia, the first episode, was a relatively brief affair starting in January but U.S. policymakers had an easy call – the regime must respect peoples’ rights to protest – since there were few American strategic interests at stake. The protests eventually drove out thuggish leader President Ben Ali and his family. The next case was not so simple. Egypt is a keystone; it is the most populous Arab country, a major U.S. ally and a key element in American policy in the region, especially important in the pursuit of peace between Israel and its neighbors. So pulling the rug out from the increasingly unpopular rule of long-time American friend and brutal dictator President Hosni Mubarak was not in the cards going in. But as the demonstrations in Cairo and around the country achieved a critical momentum and the beginning of a very bloody crackdown was seen, Washington found its footing, “Mubarak must go.” And so it was.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the Arabian Peninsula the monarch in the tiny Gulf state of Bahrain and the minority Sunni population were facing off with the repressed majority Shia population. America’s reflexive interest in maintaining the status quo in an Arab country mattered very much in the case of Bahrain. It has been a linchpin in U.S. Gulf security policy for decades – the home of America’s fleet in the region and a key ally in the seemingly never-ending face off with Iran across the Gulf. However, once again American values were at stake and Washington’s reaction, when blood started flowing in the streets, was to urge restraint in dealing with the protests. The stakes only increased when Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain’s Arab partners in the Gulf, sent troops to bolster security in the streets out of their fears of Shia ascendency and Iranian influence. The situation has been tamped down but the final chapter has not been written.

Back in North Africa the pot continued to boil and Libyan protestors, tired of over 40 years of the buffoonish tyrant Qaddafi, caught their own wave and took to the streets. The demonstrations quickly turned very bloody as the regime was caught off guard but not unprepared to unleash a very violent campaign against the rebels, especially once they lost the eastern half of the country including Benghazi, the nation’s second city. Full-scale military battles, including the use of air power, erupted and observers started calls for international action, especially creation of a “No-Fly Zone” to aid the rebels. Washington watched, hoping Qaddafi’s rule would fall under its own corrupt weight, but the Colonel wasn’t following the script of slipping gently into the night. Calls to interrupt Libya’s use of air forces increased, leading America’s Defense Secretary to bring focus to what was being asked of the United States. Robert Gates told Congress that there should be no mistake that imposition of a “No-Fly Zone” meant that America would be at war with Libya. He also reminded everyone that America’s men and women under arms were already over committed around the world. Others who feared being tied down in another war in another Muslim country noted the passing of the eighth anniversary of the War in Iraq and its cost of blood and treasure to America – over 4400 Americans killed and 32,000 wounded, over $750 billion spent with a total liability estimated at $3 trillion.

The Administration deliberated. This time it was being asked for more than pronouncements on American policy about demonstrations; it was being asked to drop bombs and commit Americans to the fight with no clear course as to how it would come out. There was also no clear international consensus. There was Qaddafi. There was violent repression on TV every night. There was oil. There was the prospect that the defeat of the Libyan uprising would put a freeze on the “Arab Spring.” There was the rampant impression that a “No-Fly Zone” is something easy, quick and cheap to do – the 12 years we did it over Iraq was none of those. There was support from the Arab League – important cover for Western intervention in one more Islamic nation – and the French and the Brits were ready to go “all-in” but there were doubts among some NATO allies and UN Security Council. There was also the question of precedent. Why Libya and why not – fill in the blank with one of the many countries where the government brutalizes its people? Asked the question if a response in Libya would be hypocritical veteran American diplomat Edward Walker told a Sunday talk show last week, “You can’t be consistent in international relations.” Lack of consistency appears to infect Republican politicians as well with some Administration opponents assailing Obama both for doing nothing until he did and then criticizing him for doing something about Qaddafi.

In the end Washington bought a big piece of the Libyan adventure, promising to play only a supporting role. But a week into the mission – characterized by the Defense Secretary as having been done “on the fly” – there are already questions being asked about how is this really going to turn out. Qaddafi is resolute and he still has cards to play. The four billion dollars in gold he sits on is sanction-proof and will buy lots of African mercenaries and his chemical weapons stockpiles will buy a lot of chaos. As the Libya mission is assumed under a NATO mantle we’re left to wonder if it will actually take “boots on the ground” to put an end to Qaddafi. Meanwhile, back to Syria, Jordan, Yemen, etc., etc. and more policymaking on the fly, consistent or not.

Patrick Ryan is an analyst, commentator, publisher and consultant on international affairs. He has lived and worked in the Gulf at various times since the 1970s during his 26-year career as a US Navy officer and later an independent writer. He has been publisher and editor of the SUSRIS.com project chronicling Saudi-US relations since 2003. He regularly contributes to international media on Gulf affairs and he is based in Nashville, Tennessee. He tweets @PatRyanReport and can be contacted at PatRyan@PatRyanAssociates.com

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