While the White House Slept
As Libya’s bloody conflict rages on, important lessons for U.S. foreign policy are emerging from the past month’s Middle East turmoil. Starting with Tunisia, the Obama administration has seemed repeatedly surprised by anti-regime demonstrations, unsure of the stakes for America and its allies and unprepared conceptually and operationally to deal with the consequences.
In Egypt, there was contradictory, unhelpful White House rhetoric when silence would have been prudent – and in Libya, silence when strong American words (and actions) were amply warranted.
But even presidential rhetoric is only rhetoric. The real test is whether our government is prepared for uncertainty, and how its policies are implemented under stress.
Here, the Obama administration has looked shaky at best. Consider the following questions we should now be asking about recent events in order to increase our readiness before the unknown overwhelms us yet again.
1. Did we have adequate intelligence of what was about to happen? The obvious answer is “no,” across the board. The ensuing debate about why we were caught so flatfooted will undoubtedly reverberate over the next several months. We are not looking for predictions, but for more information for policy makers and less reliance on foreign intelligence services. Our dearth of human sources in the Middle East has been a problem for decades during many administrations. And what we need now are more resources and operations, not fewer.
2. Were we prepared to protect American citizens, in country or through evacuation if necessary? This is our government’s first responsibility. As Libya descended into chaos, our government was plainly unprepared; hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Americans were at risk in the conflict’s perilous early hours. Our readiness must be vastly improved. Yet even now, we have precious few military assets in the Mediterranean, and we have escaped a 1979 Iran hostage-style crisis only through good fortune. We cannot risk a repetition.
3. Do we fully understand our interests, and the pluses and minuses of precipitous regime change? This is the grand strategy question, one too complex to be answered in a few words. But I am not reassured by Obama’s reactive handling of the crisis.
The truth is, while regional turmoil ignited nearly simultaneously in several countries, the causes of the uprisings require intelligent analysis of what’s going on in each nation, not trying to cram it artificially into a preconceived narrative.
We haven’t seen this emerge. In Egypt, Obama had at least four different official positions before Hosni Mubarak finally fell. His wavering damaged American credibility throughout the region, particularly with other governments that considered themselves friendly to the United States.
In Libya, one likely scenario is that the country descends into continuing civil war, with no clear winner or loser for some time. Just as Al Qaeda or other terrorists have established operating bases in failed states like Somalia, we risk a similar environment now on what was once called the Barbary Coast, literally on “the shores of Tripoli” of the Marines’ Hymn.
Rather than standing by and allowing chaos to mature, we should be taking active steps, such as recognizing an alternative Libyan government, or even securing Tripoli’s port and airport, to prevent it.
4. Are we ready for the next contingency, the one around the corner? Further eruptions are possible: Where are they likely to be? The monarchies of the Arabian Peninsula are understandably concerned about the regional turmoil, but they are even more concerned about Iran’s malign presence just across the gulf. They see Tehran’s influence at work in the intense Shi’ite opposition to Bahrain’s Sunni monarchy, and they fear fickle America abandoning them as we have just, in their view, cast aside our long-time ally Mubarak.
One enormous difference here, of course, is the critical role the petroleum production of the gulf countries plays in the world economy, ours in particular, as well as the very different nature of the monarchies’ relationship to their citizens, financially and otherwise.
Whether those factors will ultimately ensure stability and security throughout the region is as yet unknowable, but one thing is for certain: We need to be prepared for the trouble to spread, and to defend our critical economic interests. These are not abstract questions of foreign policy, but matters that touch directly on the daily lives of every American. We forget that lesson only at our inordinate peril.
Bolton is former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.
This article originally appeared in the New York Daily News.