Business Times - 26 Oct 2011
Conflicting thoughts of Republicans
US moves on Libya and Iraq may be a sign it's adapting its policies to changing balance of power in the region
By LEON HADAR
REPUBLICAN politicians, including the party's leading presidential candidates, as well as Fox News' right-wing pundits and the armchair warriors on the conservative blogosphere have been suffering from an acute case of foreign-policy cognitive dissonance in recent months.
They have been bashing President Barack Obama for failing to stand up for US interests in the Middle East and for cosying up to anti-American (and anti-Israeli) Arabs and radical Islamists. Yet this same president is the one who ends up assassinating Osama bin Laden and other Al-Qaeda figures and helps topple (and kill) Libya's Muammar Gaddafi, the notorious godfather of international terrorism and long-time symbol of Arab radicalism.
And Mr Obama also takes a tough stand in dealing with Pakistan's political and military leaders, insisting that they end their support for anti-American guerrillas who are hindering the United States' anti-Taliban campaign in Afghanistan that has been bolstered by, you know, the 'un-American' and 'appeaser' of terrorism, President Barack Hussein Obama.
Trying to resolve this cognitive dissonance, Republican Senator Marco Rubio from Florida - a Tea Party favourite who is regarded as a possible vice-president candidate - refrained from congratulating the US for helping rid Libya of Col Gaddafi, and suggested that France and Britain deserve credit for carrying 'the load' of the mission in Libya and criticised Mr Obama for not acting earlier.
Ironically, a large number of Republicans and conservatives were critical of the White House for its decision to provide logistical support for the military operations in Libya. Republican presidential candidate Michele Bachmann, a Representative from Minnesota, insisted that Washington had no strategic interests to protect in Libya, a view shared by some of her Republican colleagues who seemed to be all over the political map when it came to Libya, accusing Mr Obama simultaneously of doing too much and too little there.
And now after Mr Obama announced a day after Col Gaddafi's killing that the US would be pulling the rest of its troops from Iraq in the coming months - following through on a decision that had been made by his Republican predecessor - the Republicans are also accusing Mr Obama of foreign-policy ineptitude and weakness, charging that ending the US military occupation of Iraq would provide an opportunity for Iran to expand its influence in Iraq and strengthen its position in the region.
This Republication position totally disregards the fact that it was the earlier decision by Republican president George W Bush in 2003 to invade Iraq and topple Saddam Hussein that helped bring to power a Shiite-led government in Baghdad with ties to Teheran. It also removed the main strategic counter-balance to Iran in the Persian Gulf.
Moreover, comparing the different strategies employed by the US to bring about changes in regimes in Libya and in Iraq suggests that in choosing the most cost-effective policies in trying to secure American interests in the Middle East at a time of political change in the region and of diminishing American military and economic resources, Washington should eschew a hegemonic and ideologically driven course and attempt to lead 'from behind' by providing incentives for regional and other interested players to take action and do some of the heavy lifting.
The Iran factor
Indeed, the Iraq war could provide a case study of how NOT to pursue US interest in the Middle East. Embracing an ideological dogma that assumed that America and the West were in the midst of a global clash with radical Islam ('Islamofascism') and that Washington would win that war by 'liberating' Iraq and promoting its own version of political and economic freedom, Mr Bush and his neo-conservative advisers disregarded the ethnic and sectarian realities in Iraq and the balance of power in the Persian Gulf. They unleashed a military confrontation that helped shift power in Iraq from the Sunnis to the Shiites which strengthened Iran's position.
That policy only harmed US interests and failed to advance liberal and democratic values in Iraq and the region, and it antagonised regional partners (Saudi Arabia; Turkey) as well as global players with interests in the Middle East, such as the European Union.
In Libya, on the other hand, it was not the Obama administration that orchestrated the rebellion against the regime of Col Gaddafi, and its insistence on not sending ground troops left the European powers with no other choice but to take the military lead in bringing about a regime change there.
While Washington denied Britain and France the opportunity to depose Egypt's leader Gamal Abdel Nasser in 1956 as part of a process aimed at achieving American hegemony in the Middle East, a half-of-a-century later the Americans were encouraging these two European powers to help get rid of a dictator in neighbouring Libya and return to a military role in their geostrategic backyard.
The Obama administration's policy in Libya coupled with the announcement of withdrawing US troops from Iraq may not signal that Washington is about to embrace a new grand strategy for the Middle East. But it may be a sign that it is beginning to adapt its policies to the changing balance of power in the region.
Instead of trying to enforce its agenda and impose its will on the Middle East, Washington should play a more modest and effective role of the strategic balancer of last resort, using its diplomatic power to form coalitions aimed at containing potential threats, and applying its military power in a limited fashion - and only if and when other regional and global players with direct interests in what is happening there cannot get their act together.
Only fools rush into military interventions. The wise consider the costs and the alternatives.
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