As the democratic awakening sweeps across the Arab world, the Obama administration is struggling to find the right balance between short-term crisis management and the longer-term need for a new approach that breaks with Washington’s dark history of military intervention and support for autocratic regimes. After some initial missteps, the administration was able to strike, more or less, the right balance in the case of Egypt, using its ties with the Egyptian military to help nudge Hosni Mubarak from power without distracting from the historic display of people power in Tahrir Square.
The latest challenge comes from the deteriorating situation in Libya, where the rapid advance of forces loyal to Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi threatened the defeat of rebel forces. Our natural tendency is to want to help end Qaddafi’s despotic rule and to save the lives of those bravely resisting his onslaught. But it is a difficult challenge to take action that has a reasonable chance of success but that does not arouse popular—and well-founded—suspicions of neoimperial intervention. The catastrophic invasion of Iraq hangs heavy in the Arab world, and Washington’s role in the Middle East is still deeply compromised, with US military aid to repressive regimes like Bahrain and Saudi Arabia now being used to crush peaceful protest and demands for democracy.
As the violence intensified in March, the White House faced a chorus of voices from respected liberals like Senator John Kerry, as well as from perennial hawks like Senators John McCain and Joe Lieberman, calling for a no-fly zone. The administration was right to resist those calls in favor of a series of UN Security Council–mandated measures—freezing the regime’s assets, imposing sanctions on Qaddafi and his associates and organizing humanitarian assistance—that fell short of military action. The administration has also opened up contacts with the opposition but has not recognized it or provided arms.
Finally, as Qaddafi’s forces closed in on Benghazi, and after the Arab League voted in favor of a no-fly zone, the White House on March 17 joined Britain, France and other members of the UN Security Council in passing a Chapter VII resolution authorizing member states "to take all necessary measures…to protect civilians and civilian populated areas under threat of attack" by Qaddafi’s forces "while excluding a foreign occupation force of any form on any part of Libyan territory."
There are strong arguments in favor of the White House decision. First, there were legitimate worries that Qaddafi’s forces would carry out massacres after recapturing Benghazi and other rebel-held areas. Second, the United States did not lead the charge but acted only after desperate pleas by Libyans under siege and at the urging of Arab League and other multilateral institutions. And Washington has made clear that implementation of the NFZ will have to be genuinely multilateral. So far, the White House has acted with caution and respect for international law. And Qaddafi’s declaration of a cease-fire immediately after passage of the resolution gave hope that it might, through intimidation alone, change the balance of forces and lead to the rapid erosion of his support.