No-fly zone part of a complex US strategy

Business Times - 22 Mar 2011

No-fly zone part of a complex US strategy

Invasion not an option in US-induced campaign for political and economic reform


FOLLOWING Friday's United Nations Security Council resolution authorising the use of military force to impose a no-fly zone (NFZ) in Libya, newspaper headlines have been screaming about US missile strikes on Libya, creating the impression that not before long, American troops are going to be deployed to the North African county. In this version of reality, President Barack Obama was following in the footsteps of his predecessor, President George W Bush as he was supposedly drawing the outlines of another 'regime change' a la Afghanistan and Iraq.

But if anything, President Obama seems to be embracing the more realist strategic model pursued by Presidents George H W Bush and Bill Clinton in dealing with so-called rogue regimes led by the Muammar Gaddafis of the world. That includes the use of US military power under the auspices of a multilateral system and with the support of other governments and the rejection of the idea of deploying US ground troops to invade the targeted country.

Support from allies

Indeed, President Obama decided to back the Security Council resolution on Libya only after ensuring that the European Union and the Arab League were committed to taking military action in enforcing the NFZ in Libya and that none of the other permanent members of the Security Council - Russia and China - threatened to veto the proposed resolution.

China and Russia did abstain from voting as did other non-permanent members of the council - Germany, India and Brazil. At the same time, members of the Arab League decided to back the imposition of the NFZ on Libya, a member of the group that had been suspended following the decision by Col Gaddafi to use military force against civilians as he tried to suppress the insurgency that is threatening his regime.

If anything, the US support for imposing the NFZ is based on the assumption that France and Britain - who were the main drafters of the Security Council resolution - were going to take up the leading military role in the operation with the Americans providing some limited tactical support in enforcing the zone and is 'not going to deploy ground troops into Libya', as Mr Obama stressed on Friday.

The missions targeting Libya will be flown out of French, Italian and British bases. And there are some indications that Arab air forces, including that of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), will take part in the operation with the US Navy's Sixth Fleet in the Mediterranean providing some tactical support, if necessary, by launching guided missiles while its ships will serve as platforms for helicopter operations.

In a way, the constrained US response to the developments in Libya should be seen as part of the cautious and calculated strategy adopted by President Obama since the start of the recent upheaval in the Middle East.

The downfall of the pro-American autocrats in Tunisia and Egypt and the growing threat to regimes that are either allied with Washington (Bahrain) or doing business with it (Yemen) cannot be described as anything other than a devastating blow to US strategic interests. Coupled with the costly military intervention in Iraq, the inconclusive war in Afghanistan, the deadlocked Israeli-Palestinian peace process, Iran's nuclear programme and the divergence of US and Turkish interests - it becomes obvious that the age of US hegemony in the Middle East is over.

Overstretched military

There is not much that the US can do to reverse this process. Not unlike Winston Churchill who dreamt that Britain could retain its empire after 1945, some Americans fantasise that the US can continue calling the shots in the Middle East by holding the hands of Hosni Mubarak, by taking a tougher line against Iran, or for that matter, by establishing a NFZ in Libya.

But with a military overstretched in Iraq and Afghanistan and with a budget deficit rising to the stratosphere, there is no support in Washington for opening a new military front in the region.

Indeed, a recent Washington Post polls suggested that 64 per cent of Americans believe that the war in Afghanistan is not worth fighting. A Gallup poll indicated that 50 per cent of the public supports the notion that the US should mind its own business internationally and let other countries get along the best they can on their own.

And without the US willing to deploy its troops in new military interventions, waltzing with Mr Mubarak or threatening to shoot down Col Gaddafi's planes or imposing more sanctions on Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad will only create expectations for renewed US leadership that are not going to be fulfilled.

Mr Obama not only recognises that the US is constrained in its ability to determine outcomes in the Middle East. He also understands that the continuing US preoccupation with that region doesn't allow Washington to invest the required time and resources in maintaining its position in East Asia where core US interests are at stake.

So Mr Obama's Washington is engaged in a cost-cutting exercise in the Middle East under which it is adjusting to the political changes - or riding the 'wave of change' - by accepting the inevitable (Egypt), trying to mold it (Bahrain) or treating it with limited action (Libya) - and by pressing the Europeans to assume more responsibilities.

Agents of change

This Realpolitik approach is being marketed as an American-induced campaign for political and economic reform with Mr Obama and Facebook being hailed as the agents of change, despite the fact that the expectation in Washington is that even under the best-case-scenario, the new regimes will be hostile to the US.

The decision to support an NFZ in Libya, like the attempts to deal with the challenge that Bahrain's Shiite majority is posing to the ruling Sunni monarchy as well as with the insurgency in Yemen and the instability in Jordan and Syria - not to mention the political uncertainty in Egypt while continuing to fight two wars in Afghanistan and Iraq - are going to test President Obama's ability to pursue this complex strategy aimed at preserving US influence in the Middle East.

Copyright © 2010 Singapore Press Holdings Ltd. All rights reserved.


Popular posts from this blog

When will Israel attack Iran?

my new op-ed in Haaretz