Libya and Yemen: What’s Obama’s World View
Although the Arab League called for the no-fly zone and it is a joint operation among Western and Arab countries, judged against the history of American intervention, the one in Libya seems fairly conventional. George H.W. Bush built a more substantial united front against Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait. What’s different about this action is the swiftness of execution and the fact that an Arab opposition directly called for help in a conflict with its own government.
Instead of dragging on the debate over whether intervention was either just or smart, it would be far more useful to anticipate how the situation in Libya will play out (the end game), what comes after it and how it affects the Arab uprisings in general.
Most troubling right now is the shadow that intervention casts over the nationalist underpinnings of the Arab uprisings of 2011. The goal of millions of youth taking to the streets throughout the Arab world was reclaiming the promise of independence and self-determination won by their parents and grandparents after WW2, a promise long stifled by the royal and autocratic regimes that gained power in the 50s and 60s.
Obama played the initial thrust of the uprising with finesse, declaring US support for ‘democratic reforms’ while staying away from support or repudiation of players themselves. Far from indecision, Obama showed firm respect for the sovereignty of Tunisia and Egypt, recognizing the uprisings as internal political strife that the US did not, should not and would not have a hand in. To many anti-interventionists, the Libyan military action is a betrayal of the already battered principles of sovereignty that wrecked US foreign policy in the ten years before. My contention is that whether you supported the Libyan intervention or not, how this particular intervention unfolds and resolves itself will reflect either the respect or further trampling of sovereignty into the future.
Today, we hear about the Administration shifting positions and backing the ouster of President Saleh in Yemen. Yesterday, news spread that two of Qaddafi’s sons have put forth a plan for his ouster and moving towards a constitutional system.
I think the Administration’s shifting position on Yemen is hugely significant. The US is clearly backing the protesters, many of whom have been gunned down by government forces even though Saleh, even though he was a partner in the fight against Al-Queda in Arabia, one of the terrorist group’s most lethal branches. This may be the biggest test in answering where this is going.
Will the West try to co-opt or influence the Libyan opposition and by extention, undermine the prevailing principle of self-determination claimed by the protest movement as a whole and within each country? What happens if the “UN coalition” wants a negotiated settlement to the strife, as Quaddafi’s son proposed last week, and the internal opposition rejects it?
After all, by sticking to their demands and demanding their presidents step down, the Tunisians and Egyptians achieved what they set out to do. As a consequence they set in motion a challenge to the foundation of their countries’ political systems. In the past, many movements may have compromised for something less. But each attempt by the Ben Ali and Mubarak regimes to pacify the the crowds or violently suppress them only gained the opposition tens of thousands of new recruits.
It jarred us when media scenes of of jubilant crowds in the overflowing central square of Tripoli abruptly switched to the explosions and clouds of smoke created by precision American strikes at Libyan defenses. We thrilled to the former and were sickened by a sense deja vu with the latter.
The instinct of intervention is to control. And statements by Sarkozy and Cameron at the beginning of the no-fly zone dripped with paternalism and ‘mighty mouse’ exaggeration. But with the President Obama’s switch of position on Yemen, the narrative of the Arab spring continues to be set by the opposition. Realistically, there is no way the US would sit this regional upheaval out. The Libyan opposition and the Yemeni’s who demanded that America cut lose Saleh or be condemned for hypocrisy seem to understand the global picture better than many US activists.
I’m a skeptic of intervention. But we may be witnessing a real shift in American foreign policy, one working with – instead of trying to control – indigenous struggles towards representative government. This doesn’t mean that the Western powers won’t try to manipulate the politics of the region. Leopards don’t change spots. It means recognizing the strength of these movements themselves and the sophistication of many of its youthful leaders who are themselves pushing the US into new directions while ousting America’s old ‘allies’ one by one. Self-determination takes different shapes at different times.
Wish I knew Arabic for ‘it ain’t over ’till the fat lady sings.’