Triumph of New Wilsonism

in The National Interest

by Nikolas K. Gvosdev & Ray Takeyh

WHEN OPERATION Odyssey Dawn commenced in the skies over Libya on March 19, 2011, it represented a major turnaround in U.S. policy. Only nine months earlier, U.S. ambassador Gene Cretz had characterized the regime as a “strategic ally” of the United States due to Libyan cooperation on counterterrorism and nonproliferation issues (and its halting, tentative steps toward greater openness). Now Libya found itself on the receiving end of conventional U.S. military power for repressing a civilian population agitating for governmental change. Considerations that over the past sixty years might have stayed the hand of an earlier president—fears about regime change leading to a hostile government taking power in an oil-rich and geostrategic Middle Eastern state, or concerns about the potential debilitating costs of intervention—were set aside. And while Muammar el-Qaddafi’s distant past as an international renegade and sponsor of terrorism was invoked by Barack Obama, there was little effort to portray twenty-first-century Libya as a looming security threat to the United States. Indeed, given the more recent history of Libyan-American rapprochement, including Qaddafi’s active cooperation with the West in the struggle against al-Qaeda, such an attempt would have rung hollow. Instead, the Obama team embraced Qaddafi’s treatment of his population as the central rationale for the operation.

This marks a fundamental break with past American emphasis on serious threats to U.S. national security as the prime motivation for action, especially armed intervention. In making the case for war against Saddam Hussein in 2003, the Bush administration highlighted the Iraqi tyrant’s abuse of his citizens and his war crimes against Iran and the Kurds. But the case for invading Iraq rested not so much on humanitarian concerns as on displacing a volatile actor who threatened core American security interests. Saddam’s suspected depositories of unconventional weapons and his ties to terrorists became the central rallying cries of the proponents of coercive regime change, while humanitarian impulses to liberate an oppressed population were a secondary justification. In the case of Libya, however, no such national-security arguments were seriously proffered in support of the necessity for military action. The Obama administration never suggested that its intervention was designed to redeem any critical national interests; as a matter of fact, outgoing defense secretary Robert Gates loudly and repeatedly proclaimed that there were no vital interests at stake in Libya.

Moreover, the Libya operation took place against a backdrop of regional ferment that already had claimed the political lives of two close U.S. partners, Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak and Tunisia’s Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, and was threatening to depose other American friends from Jordan to Yemen. Saddam Hussein had been an avowed enemy of the United States, which lent a certain geopolitical logic to George W. Bush’s invasion. But now Washington was demonstrating a willingness to side “with the street” against regimes that were pro-American. Six years ago, writing in these pages, Dov Zakheim expressed the prevailing U.S. outlook in dealing with friendly autocrats in the region:

Given their steps, however halting, toward creating freer societies, their willingness to countenance a Middle East peace settlement and the virulent anti-Americanism of much of their opposition, it must be asked whether it is really in America’s interest to distance itself from such regimes. Constructive engagement with friends who are slow to respond but respond nonetheless is one thing; rejection is quite another.

The gap between that philosophy and recent U.S. actions poses some questions: Are we witnessing a subtle paradigm shift, where governments’ treatment of their citizens, as opposed to their geopolitical conduct, is more important as a factor for U.S. policy? Does the Libya operation provide a model for low-cost, no-consequence interventions that Obama and other presidents may seek to employ elsewhere in the region and around the world? In short, has America entered a postrealist phase in its foreign policy, where it believes that it is possible to promote U.S. values at minimal cost to U.S. interests?

If these questions can be answered in the affirmative, then America could stand at the threshold of a new foreign-policy era dominated by a twenty-first-century iteration of Wilsonism—the widespread application of American power on behalf of humanitarian ideals even when it risks compromising key interests. What this would mean for America and the world remains an open question of profound dimension.

FOR DECADES, the specter of an Iran “lost” after the overthrow of the shah has hung over America’s Middle East policy. Washington saw how a revolution initially defined by calls for democracy and liberalization ended up ushering in an Islamic Republic bitterly hostile to U.S. interests. As Jeane Kirkpatrick concluded in November 1979:

The American effort to impose liberalization and democratization on a government confronted with violent internal opposition not only failed, but actually assisted the coming to power of new regimes in which ordinary people enjoy fewer freedoms and less personal security than under the previous autocracy—regimes, moreover, hostile to American interests and policies.

While experiments with democracy could be tolerated in some parts of the world because vital U.S. interests were not at stake, there was no room for error in the Middle East during the Cold War. In January 1980, Jimmy Carter made it explicit that the United States would respond, by military means if necessary, to any “grave threat to the free movement of Middle East oil” to the Western world.

In the years following the rise of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, a generation of hereditary monarchs and authoritarian presidents throughout the Middle East convinced Washington that, as much as their illiberal regimes might offend American democratic sensibilities, the alternatives would be worse—whether revolutionary regimes more inclined to side with the Soviet Union or Islamists convinced that America was indeed the Great Satan. The “Reagan Corollary” to the so-called “Carter Doctrine,” announced in October 1981, more explicitly committed the United States to preserving the internal stability of Western partners in the region, beginning with Saudi Arabia and its ruling House of Saud.

The unelected, absolute monarch of a theocratic state seemed to be an unlikely partner for an American president who, in quoting Winston Churchill in 1982, had reaffirmed his commitment to establishing “conditions of freedom and democracy as rapidly as possible in all countries.” But when King Fahd visited Washington in 1985, he received no lectures about the urgent necessity to democratize his realm. Instead, Reagan took the view that the best way to promote democracy in the long run was to prevent countries from going communist or Islamist in the short run.

America’s experience in East Asia and Latin America during the Reagan years buttressed this approach. Over time, in places such as Chile, South Korea and Taiwan, authoritarian presidents created the frameworks for gradual transitions to democracy without undermining their security relationships with the United States. Instead of siding with protestors calling for immediate democratic reform, Washington supported existing regimes in cracking down on the opposition, provided a long-term, gradualist program for change was being implemented.

So the Middle Eastern imperatives of geology and geography conspired to disabuse American officialdom of any Wilsonian impulses to push for democracy and human rights. The region’s oil was necessary for the free world’s economic vitality, and its strategic outposts were needed for the containment of the Soviet and Iranian menaces. The constellation of conservative monarchies and presidential dictatorships was important in subduing the radical clients of the Soviet Union; Saudi Arabia’s embrace of the mantle of the defenders of Islam was essential in negating Iran’s theocratic rage, while Saddam Hussein proved indispensable in checking Iran’s ambitions. And when Hussein himself sought to reorder the region’s politics more to his liking with his invasion of Kuwait in 1990, the United States assembled an international coalition that ejected him from his conquest and crushed his military.

The U.S. strategy succeeded. After Egyptian leader Anwar Sadat expelled some twenty thousand Soviet military “advisers” from his country in 1972, the Soviet Union never made substantial inroads into the Middle East. (While Syria remained a close client of Moscow, it could never aspire to play the same role as Egypt.) The radical Arab republics failed to dislodge the conservative order and nudge the region toward neutralism or, even worse, communism. The region’s oil, especially after the collapse of oil prices in the 1980s, continued to lubricate the Western economic surge. The revisionist states of Iran and Iraq were confined in their boundaries, stripped of their ambitions for regional hegemony and power, and served as regional counterweights to each other.

Tehran mural in honour of Anwar Sadat's assassin Khalid Islambouli.

Tehran mural in honour of Anwar Sadat’s assassin Khalid Islambouli.

The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 did not fundamentally alter the trajectory of U.S. policy. Replacing the “Red Menace” was now the “Green Crescent”—fears that militantly anti-Western Islamist groups were on the march. When Algeria’s Islamists seemed on the verge of taking control of a key North African state after the results of the first round of elections in 1991, the West acquiesced in the Algerian military’s January 1992 decision to cancel further balloting. In Egypt, the most populous state in the Arab world, a terror campaign by Al Gamaa al-Islamiyya to bring down the government by targeting police and foreign tourists reinforced the belief that the regime of Hosni Mubarak must get America’s unconditional support or Egypt could be “lost” to a hostile ideology. This was, remember, a time when Bill Clinton was hoping to expand the Middle East peace process by having more leaders—even if not democratically empowered—join Egypt in concluding peace treaties with Israel.

If preventing the Soviet Union from furthering its toehold in the region was the paramount objective of earlier administrations, the Clinton team focused on isolating the so-called “backlash states” that “seek to advance their agenda through terror, intolerance and coercion.” This propelled the United States to prevent the potential resurgence of Iraq, to prolong the policy of coercing Iran, and to continue to isolate bad actors such as Libya and Yemen. All this necessitated partnerships with authoritarian monarchs and presidents and militated against any “third wave of democratization” in the Middle East to complement developments in Eastern Europe and Latin America. But the Clinton administration was also uneasy about accepting the cold dictates of realism that rated interests over values. Hence, continued support for autocrats was justified by arguments that governments in the region lacked the skills to engineer transitions to democracy. That is why the U.S. government, working with private-sector democracy initiatives, began to churn out programs to train judges, publish guides on voting procedures and extend financial support for NGOs that pledged their commitment to liberal values (but which commanded very little popular support). Still, one heard little sustained public criticism about Egypt’s deformed politics, Saudi support for inflammatory Islam or a Persian Gulf order comfortable with its autocratic ways.

Indeed, when Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani removed his father and took control of Qatar in 1995, this coup d’état was quietly hailed as the possible beginning of a generational transfer of power in the Middle East that would bring younger, more liberal leaders to power. These expectations were heightened when Bashar al-Assad succeeded his father Hafez as president in Syria in 2000 and quickly dropped hints about “reform.” This “Damascus Spring,” when liberal-leaning discussion groups sprang up in the capital, proved short-lived. But these assumptions helped define a strategy of accepting the status quo for the foreseeable future while training a group of democracy activists and waiting for the next generation of supposedly more liberal leaders to take power.

IT WAS perhaps inevitable that the tragedies of 9/11 would jolt the Washington establishment and call into question the value of America’s long-standing relationships with regional despots. Indeed, the argument was soon advanced that the United States was being imperiled by the lack of democracy in the region, which nurtured a dysfunctional political culture serving as a feeding ground for organizations such as al-Qaeda. The approach embraced by previous administrations was explicitly rejected; the United States could not wait for generational change to “drain the swamp” through gradual reform and liberalization. Speaking in Cairo in 2005, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice bluntly commented that “for sixty years, my country, the United States, pursued stability at the expense of democracy in this region here in the Middle East—and we achieved neither.”

But the use of U.S. power to promote democratic change through direct intervention remained a contested proposition. In the past, concerns about costs to U.S. interests had always acted as a brake on American interventions unrelated to national interests. Large-scale interventions, particularly using conventional military forces to achieve forcible regime change, were expensive and risky. Reagan’s Grenada operation and George H. W. Bush’s Panama incursion were the exceptions, not the rule. The limitations of the Cold War also meant that large swaths of the world were effectively “off-limits” for U.S. action. These considerations were very much evident in the arguments marshaled by former national-security adviser Brent Scowcroft in his famous Wall Street Journal op-ed of August 2002, which decried the rush to war in Iraq.

But the 1999 Kosovo operation marked a critical turning point in how Washington conceptualized the risks and opportunities of intervention. In contrast to the first Gulf War, which occurred with the concurrence of Moscow and Beijing, this action lacked their support. But opposition to military intervention in the former Yugoslavia wasn’t sufficient to prevent it from occurring. And the operation took place in a part of Europe that only ten years earlier would have been deemed a no-go area for NATO forces. The apparent ease of the campaign—an air war that was nearly casualty free for the allies and produced a capitulation and transition without need of ground forces—also changed the intervention calculus in Washington, displacing the failed legacy of Vietnam with a belief that a “shock and awe” campaign could produce dramatic on-the-ground transformations.

Serbian (Yugoslav) army leaves Kosovo 1999

There was near unanimity in Washington that Saddam Hussein, as Scowcroft noted, was

a menace. He terrorizes and brutalizes his own people. He has launched war on two of his neighbors. He devotes enormous effort to rebuilding his military forces and equipping them with weapons of mass destruction. We will all be better off when he is gone.

But there were very different ways to prosecute the war. An invasion designed to decapitate the regime and ensure that Iraq was disarmed would look very different from a campaign aimed at reconstructing the country in the image of postwar Germany or Japan. So the subsidiary theme of the invasion was that removing Hussein would not be enough; a prospective democratic government in Baghdad would establish an inclusive polity that would be accountable at home and align itself with U.S. security interests abroad, including concluding a peace treaty with Israel and aggressively containing Iran and Syria.

In some of his most eloquent speeches, George W. Bush cast aside the assertion that the Arab masses were ill equipped for self-determination and democratic accountability. But he also cautiously emphasized that America would safeguard its interests while redeeming its ideals. The assumption was that, starting in a reformed Iraq, an empowered Arab citizenry would choose leaders focused on fixing broken economies, addressing institutional decay and the consequences of the region’s demographic bulge—rather than striving to thwart U.S. security interests. To be sure, the process would be unsteady and sometimes tumultuous, but in the end large areas of a new Middle East would be governed by popularly elected regimes that would freely choose to join a U.S.-led global order as opposed to plotting against its norms.

The first part of the Iraq invasion fulfilled the promise of Kosovo: Saddam Hussein was removed quickly with few coalition casualties. But securing the democratic peace in Iraq proved far more elusive, reawakening the ghost of Vietnam as more soldiers were killed and wounded and as costs kept rising (to a cumulative total of $1 trillion). And Iraqi elections have overwhelmingly empowered ethnosectarian parties whose leaders did not play out the role scripted for them by Washington. None of the grandiose expectations of American officials were fulfilled. Indeed, from an unwillingness to condemn Hezbollah or Syria to the maintenance of close ties with Iran, first the Bush and now the Obama administrations have expressed repeated frustrations with the government of Nuri al-Maliki.

Elsewhere the picture was similar. The 2005 Cedar Revolution in Lebanon initially brought to the fore a pro-Western coalition of parties but ended up strengthening Hezbollah’s hold on the country. The Bush administration’s flirtation with the proposition that promoting democracy advances American security in the Middle East came to a sudden end with the results of the January 2006 elections in the Palestinian territories. There was an air of unease about the entire situation, as the radical Islamist group, Hamas, seemed poised to undo the political hegemony of Fatah. In previous decades, Washington might have called for postponement of the elections or acquiesced to their rigging by Fatah to produce a more desirable government. However, the Bush administration had invested so much in its democratic advocacy that it almost had no choice but to watch the ballots being cast and hope for the best. When it was over, Hamas won seventy-four out of 132 parliamentary seats and claimed the post of premiership. In due course, Palestinian unity would fall apart, and Hamas would confine itself to Gaza, from which it would periodically launch missile attacks against Israel. Not for the first time, the Middle East escaped Washington’s preferred template and confronted the United States with choices and decisions that it had hoped to avert.

In the aftermath of the Palestinian elections, the Bush administration’s democratic enterprise limped along, devoid of ambition or any clear agenda. Coercive pressure for reforms in places such as Egypt or Saudi Arabia was abandoned. The administration returned to “practical” issues—stabilizing Iraq, resuming the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and attempting to restrain Iran’s ambitions. The Bush team fell back on the earlier paradigm of relying on hereditary monarchs and authoritarian presidents to deliver stability in the region. The league of despots proved as useful to the Bush administration as it did to its predecessors. In a sense, realism seemed to have overwhelmed the ideological convulsions of post-9/11 Washington.

The second half of the Bush administration focused its efforts not on forcible regime change but on regime rehabilitation followed by gradual liberalizing amelioration: cultivating liberalizing autocrats who could retain control over the process and keep U.S. security interests intact but who would lay the groundwork for an eventual democratic transition. As Zakheim noted:

Brandishing “democracy” like a sword over the rulers of other nations, distancing itself even from those rulers who initiate reforms, on the grounds that they are moving too slowly, and creating an atmosphere that leads them to believe that they will be destabilized if not forcefully removed, will not enable the United States to achieve its objectives in the Middle East.

The U.S.-Libya relationship became the incubator of this approach after Qaddafi renounced state support for terror activities, ended Libya’s embryonic mass-destruction weapons program and aligned Libya with Western interests. This laid the basis for Tripoli’s rapprochement with Washington, a policy that enjoyed strong bipartisan support in the U.S. Congress. In 2007, the late Tom Lantos, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, concluded:

I am very proud of America’s success in convincing Qadhafi to become a decent citizen of the global community. . . . Our engagement with Qadhafi and the prosperity it has brought Libya serves as a model to countries currently sponsoring terror or compiling weapons of mass destruction. They should know that they, too, can come in from the cold.

In dealing with hereditary politics in the Middle East, the United States held out hope that the Taiwan scenario (the passage of power from an autocratic father to a more liberalizing son) might be duplicated in the region—especially when it came to two sons, Seif al-Islam el-Qaddafi and Gamal Mubarak, who were seen as liberalizing “heirs-in-waiting” to take over Libya and Egypt from their elderly fathers. Having younger, Western-educated sons take control from aging parents seemed the best way to encourage democratization in the Middle East.

For its first two years, the Obama administration continued to adhere to this script. Then a university-educated fruit seller in Tunisia immolated himself, and everything changed.

The Arab Spring was bound to present the United States with stark choices. Suddenly a regional revolt in the name of democracy and accountability confronted pliable American allies who sought to cloak their repressive tendencies in the name of resisting Islamic radicalism. Mubarak, Qaddafi and others threatened by revolts from below had assumed that close cooperation with America’s security agenda for the Middle East would buy their regimes a certain degree of immunity from U.S. criticism and pressure. They were wrong.

Initially, many expected the Obama team to embrace the two-track approach undertaken by earlier administrations in other parts of the world, particularly in East Asia during the 1980s: up-front backing for an embattled leader to take whatever steps were needed to secure his regime and restore order with a promise to initiate reforms over the long term. Indeed, the initial responses of the Obama administration to unrest in Egypt seemed to indicate that Washington might follow the script that Ronald Reagan and his team crafted to deal with Chun Doo Hwan of South Korea: getting a leader to first accept term limits for office, then slowly laying the groundwork for the transition that culminated in the 1987 elections. But when Obama’s special envoy to Egypt, Frank Wisner, expressed support for the old approach, his remarks were repudiated in Washington, and Obama abruptly changed course to push for Mubarak’s complete and immediate removal.

Realist voices in the administration raised all the traditional cautionary flags. But they were brushed aside. In Egypt, the notion that any post-Mubarak government would be less sensitive to core U.S. interests was seen as a condition that Washington would have to live with; in earlier times it was considered an eventuality to be crushed. The concerns that Libya might disintegrate as a nation-state, facilitating the rise of Islamist militants in ungoverned spaces, were set aside for the benefit of preventing a feared humanitarian crisis. Certainly, by the end of 2011, political figures and movements that the United States worked hard for decades to keep away from the levers of power—the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, members of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, Libyan Islamists, Rachid al-Ghannouchi in Tunisia—were all playing roles in the postdictator political arena.

2011 Abottabad raid

Undoubtedly the death of Osama bin Laden, the successful elimination of other key al-Qaeda leaders and operatives, and the belief that al-Qaeda was “losing its struggle for relevance” in the region, to quote from Obama’s May 2011 address at the State Department, contributed to the assessment that backing revolutionary ferment in the Arab world would not automatically hand power over to an implacable foe of the United States. Obama has expressed his optimism that successor regimes will not seek to alter fundamentally their countries’ ongoing cooperation with the United States, particularly in continuing efforts to combat terrorism and broker a lasting Middle East peace settlement. He has declared that “America’s interests are not hostile to peoples’ hopes; they’re essential to them.” But it remains a big question whether Islamists will undergo a democratic transformation and eventually create moderate governments.

Indeed, there has been a real shift in American attitudes, a willingness to take the risks of losing short-term security advantages in favor of encouraging long-term societal change. To be sure, such a paradigm shift is not categorical or complete. America’s foreign policy is never without its inconsistencies and contradictions. Washington continues to cater to Saudi sensibilities, and it looked askance as Riyadh marched into Bahrain to buttress its Sunni satrap through continued repression of the majority Shia population. The fact that the Gulf monarchies demonstrated limited appetite for viable political reforms has not elicited loud American objections. The need for Gulf oil and military bases and the common cause of containing a recalcitrant Iran continue to overwhelm Washington’s democratic penchants. Nonetheless, a new tendency has fractured America’s long-held realism in the Middle East. How these states conduct their internal affairs and treat their citizens will be taken into account as the United States determines its alliances, shifts its loyalties and considers its interests. No country has ever conducted its policy solely on the basis of humanitarian considerations, but, given the events of the past year, they are poised to exercise more influence over decision making than ever before.

A FOREIGN-POLICY doctrine must be suited for its times, tailored to exploit available opportunities, and flexible enough to take advantage of sudden and subtle shifts in the international system. Many critics allege that realism is hardly suitable for the changing regional landscape confronting Washington today, that America needs a foreign policy based on values, and that embracing and encouraging rapid political change throughout the Middle East is both necessary and desirable.

But what is to be done if change must be nudged or forced? The 2003 Iraq War vindicated many realist objections, but the apparent success of the 2011 Libya operation—which ended up deposing Qaddafi from power without the loss of a single American life and without any serious rupture in U.S. relations with other powers—begs the question as to whether the Obama administration wants to enter a postrealist era where the old trade-offs between pursuing American ideals and securing U.S. interests are no longer relevant.

In the past, debates over the advisability of intervention were driven by two considerations: the potential cost of the proposed action and the likelihood that it would precipitate a clash with another major power. Obama acknowledged as much in March 2011 when he observed: “Given the costs and risks of intervention, we must always measure our interests against the need for action. But that cannot be an argument for never acting on behalf of what’s right.” The Arab Spring could offer the United States a template for future limited interventions that could uphold American values without exacting much cost in return.

One of the factors that may be driving the administration’s confidence that a new era of interventionism is warranted comes from the reality that so-called “rogue regimes” around the world are under a new set of pressures. In the 1990s, regimes from Iran to Cuba found relief from unilateral U.S. sanctions and pressure by turning to European states that were willing to continue engagement. The Europeans embraced a policy of critical dialogue, which stressed that through diplomatic discussions and economic incentives rogue regimes could be persuaded to modify their behavior. The proponents of such an outlook argued that even rogue states contain factions of moderates and pragmatists that serve as potential interlocutors. From this perspective, an inclusive approach was designed to empower the pragmatists and diminish the standing of the hard-liners. Clever despots could exploit the divergence between the United States and Europe, as punitive U.S. measures were frequently undermined by a European policy of commerce and dialogue. Meanwhile, U.S. pressure on Europe, manifested primarily through the imposition of secondary sanctions on European firms doing business in places such as Tehran and Havana, often backfired.

During the first years of the Bush administration, transatlantic ties were aggravated over a whole host of issues, ranging from climate change to the Iraq invasion. In particular, the United States and several of its key allies in Europe, especially Germany and France, saw the Middle East from vastly different perspectives. Yet during the latter part of the Bush presidency, the first signs of convergence began to emerge. Once the allies put the divisive issue of Iraq behind them, they found much common ground. Washington accepted the need for international coalitions to deal with regional problems, and a new generation of European leaders such as France’s Nicolas Sarkozy began to see that financial incentives and soothing words were unlikely to temper hardened ideologues.

What the Arab Spring has demonstrated is that many autocratic regimes around the world are particularly vulnerable to protest movements that originate in concerns about poor economic prospects. The despots of anemic economies cannot pay off their revolting masses if sanctions prevent them from selling their commodities or raising loans once easily available from Paris or London. Over the last several years, European governments began to place a greater emphasis on values over business interests, imposing stronger economic sanctions on illiberal regimes even when European economic interests could be negatively affected. While traditional concerns of statecraft—among them access to energy and security cooperation—remain key motives for both American and European policy in the Middle East, the question of how governments in the region treat their populations is gaining traction as a point which must be given equal consideration. The emergence of a broad transatlantic consensus makes it harder for other power centers to wholeheartedly oppose all interventions.

Thus, there is a growing perception that concerted opposition to any new humanitarian interventions will be limited. Certainly, while other great powers such as China, India or Russia may not join the effort, just as they abstained from the Security Council vote that authorized the Libya no-fly zone, it is not entirely clear that Beijing, New Delhi or Moscow would risk frayed relations with the West in order to prevent such operations from going forward in areas of the world where they do not have fundamental interests. This outlook may be summarized as: let the Western countries expend their blood and treasure if they wish. A Beijing, for instance, that still remains preoccupied with domestic economic growth and stability will not be handing out blanket security commitments to authoritarian governments around the world with any sort of guarantee that is equivalent to NATO’s famed Article 5. Of course, there will be exceptions involving countries in their immediate neighborhood. Russia, for example, might assent to a NATO mission in Libya but be much more hostile to an intervention in Central Asia seeking to displace a pro-Russian government.

But what of the times when Russian and Chinese opposition in the Security Council has seemingly torpedoed calls for intervention or otherwise watered down its provisions? To some extent, this has served as a convenient excuse when the Western powers themselves have been unsure or unwilling to get involved, such as in Darfur. But as we have seen in recent years, when the United States is particularly committed to action, these countries begin to give ground, allowing for an opening wedge to emerge that could serve as justification for intervention.

In addition, China has discovered that it can retain and perhaps expand its influence even after an intervention creates a supposedly “pro-Western” government. China has much greater access to the Iraqi oil industry in the wake of the U.S. invasion than it did during the days of Saddam Hussein. Beijing counts on the attractiveness of its terms for economic engagement; governments unable or unwilling to meet Western criteria have found in China an alternative partner for economic development. An interesting test will be whether, despite early criticisms of Beijing for its lack of support for intervention against Qaddafi, a new Libyan government ends up turning to China for the same reason that has led so many other states in Africa and Latin America to do so in the recent past: the country’s no-strings-attached aid and development policies. If this happens, it would further diminish China’s appetite for trying to directly challenge U.S. interventions around the world.

Finally, there is the ongoing revolution in military affairs—particularly the emergence of new technologies such as unmanned drones and advances in cyberwarfare—that hold out the promise of low-cost interventions that do not require a large conventional force. The Libya operation is estimated to have cost only $1 billion, a trifle compared to what has been spent in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Obama national-security team has embraced Libya as a useful example in these times of budget austerity for facilitating U.S. values and interests around the world. Deputy national-security adviser Ben Rhodes commented:

When we came to office you had a situation where there were very large U.S. military footprints in Iraq and Afghanistan. And what we’re moving towards is a far more targeted use of force in which we apply direct power against . . . those who pose a direct threat to the United States and then galvanize collective action against global security challenges.

Instead of relying upon large concentrations of ground forces to deliver knockout blows, the belief is that a combination of air power and special-forces units allows for small, light-footprint, rapid-strike missions that take out an opposing regime.

If, in order to alleviate concerns about costs, the United States in the future will be forgoing large-scale interventions in favor of covert actions and small-scale special military operations, then it suggests that a postrealist approach will focus on taking steps that are likely to produce a satisfactory outcome rather than guarantee an optimal one.

If the current situation holds—that no durable anti-American coalition is emerging to put checks on the exercise of U.S. power around the globe—then the postrealist view may gain greater traction. The strictures of the Cold War imposed a certain discipline on the process of deciding whether and when to intervene militarily in a given conflict. Intervention in some states was ruled out for reasons of geography—in the case of close proximity to the Soviet Union, for instance. Security considerations governed other situations. There was a reluctance to take action against a reasonably pro-Western, authoritarian regime for fear that it might be replaced by a pro-Soviet successor. None of these considerations is weighing on the minds of policy makers today.

Instead, if an intervention can be sold to policy makers as quick and inexpensive, with little likelihood that other major powers will significantly raise the cost of action, the propensity for intervention rises. In addition, if policy makers believe that the successor government is likely to be no worse than, or even better than, the status quo, then the path to intervention is cleared. After laboring for several years to wind down the Bush legacy in international affairs, the Obama team may be prepared to start implementing this new approach.

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