Belmont Club

Unintended Consequences

The New York Times asks the question that the architects of “leading from behind” and the “responsibility to protect” doctrines never thought of. What if actions have consequences?

After days of anti-American violence across the Muslim world, the White House is girding itself for an extended period of turmoil that will test the security of American diplomatic missions and President Obama’s ability to shape the forces of change in the Arab world. …

The unrest has suddenly become Mr. Obama’s most serious foreign policy crisis of the election season, and analysts say it is calling into question central tenets of his Middle East policy. Did he do enough throughout the Arab Spring to help the transition to democracy from autocracy? Has he drawn a hard enough line against Islamic extremists? Did his administration fail to address security concerns? Has his outreach to the Muslim world yielded any lasting benefits?

‘Benefits’ is not quite the word. ‘Consequences’ is probably a better term. Christopher Chivits at Foreign Policy, examining the long buildup of anarchy in post-Khadaffy Libya notes that you don’t have to invade a country to destabilize it.

In contrast with nearly all other post-Cold War military interventions, NATO and its partners chose not to deploy post-conflict stabilization forces when the war was over. The security situation seemed calm — indeed much calmer than many had anticipated it would be. The putative Libyan authorities were adamantly against any such deployment, fearing their already limited legitimacy would be further weakened by the presence of foreign troops on Libyan soil. They needed full credit for their victory, they argued. Few outside powers were interested in putting “boots on the ground” anyway, since most Western leaders had promised that Libya would be very different from Iraq and Afghanistan …

Initial efforts to disarm, demobilize, and reintegrate these militias into a centralized Libyan army under the authority of Libya’s leadership were quickly abandoned when it appeared that doing so might spark violence and undermine Libya’s tenuous stability. Subsequent efforts to do so by international actors met with further resistance and even suspicion from Libyan authorities. Libyan hackles were raised by an initial effort by the British and others trying to help assess Libya’s security-sector needs, further slowing reform and disarmament efforts. Meanwhile a hodgepodge of small-scale, apparently grassroots local disarmament initiatives went forward in an uncoordinated fashion.

And Libya was destabilized by “kinetic military action” as much as Iraq had been by invasion. There were consequences in either case. The criticisms of the Libya operation — whatever you want to call it — might very well have been taken from the lips of the critics of the Bush administration who accused the former President of neglecting to provide an adequate post-regime program in Saddam’s Iraq. In the case of Obama, they never even thought of it as necessary at all.

But beneath the veneer of outward calm everything was going to hell in a handbasket. Chivits asks, “one question many are asking the wake of Tuesday’s events: Were the United States and its allies naïve about the dangers in post-intervention Libya? The attacks come on the heels of a gradual deterioration of the country’s security in recent months.”

Maybe naïve is not the word. Perhaps ‘unthinking’, ‘brain dead’ or ‘in denial’ are better terms. Or maybe it was simply a case of ‘how can it happen to us? We are so smart?’

But the worst of is that the attacks on the American consulate may only mark the beginning.  Chivits now points out that what may succeed a totalitarian state is a Failed State.

Meanwhile, the deteriorating security could introduce a new dynamic. The less able the Libyan state is to provide security for Libyan citizens, the more those citizens will turn to other forms of protection — and the more the legitimacy of the new state and its officials will falter. In these conditions, the appeal of extremist elements could easily grow.

In the worst case scenario the Obama administration may have created — with good intentions of course — ticking time bombs all across North Africa, including Egypt, not to mention the Levant from which the Gulf States may not be immune. A necklace, or perhaps the better word is ‘noose’, of failed states all across the bottom of the Mediterranean.

Since there is no provision for stabilization operations in the countries wracked by the Arab Spring nobody knows where this is going. A small light bulb appeared to start flickering in President Obama’s brain as he gave a eulogy for the American dead in Libya. “I know the images on our televisions are disturbing. But let us never forget that for every angry mob, there are millions who yearn for the freedom and dignity and hope that our flag represents.”

I am sure the mob agrees.

It is beginning to dawn on him that revolutions are not a dinner party; that maybe sweeping statements read from a teleprompter can never substitute for a substantial plan. He still thinks that al-Qaeda wants the same sort of freedom America wants. Maybe he misunderstands one or the other. Very possibly he misunderstands both. In the meantime, the US scrambling to protect assets that are too widely dispersed to guard effectively. As usual, it Romney’s fault.

Even as more Marines are sent to diplomatic missions, the Obama team is confronting the very nature of America’s presence in the Middle East. With embassies already fortified after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, officials are asking whether they can be further secured or whether some activities need to be curtailed, like assistance and public diplomacy programs that leave Americans more exposed, though there are no plans at the moment to do so.

The trade-offs of such choices are stark. Pulling back on American involvement in these countries would undercut the ability to build cultural bridges that in theory diminish the sort of hostility now vividly on display. Yet officials said continuing with business as usual seemed untenable as well, and they recognize that foreign aid, already a tough sell in a rigid fiscal environment, may become even tougher to extract from Congress.

But it is never Obama’s fault. He meant well.

The role of everyone else is to serve as the designated scapegoat for incompetence of this policy. Hence the police have descended on the supposed cause of the failure in the Middle East, the maker of a video depicting Muhammed in less than flattering terms. But the obvious question is this: if the brilliant diplomatic maneuverings of Barack Obama can be undone by a never-heard from LA, then how sterling was this plan in the first place? But never mind. Ask no more questions. It’s Romney’s fault.

I Ruined the President's Genius Plan

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