The US, NATO, the UN, and members of the Arab League are now immersed in conflict in Libya, the first "outside" military action since the start of the wave of uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East. In the US, the debate about involvement has been intense. While some have debated whether the intervention is Constitutional, Obama's actions have been consistent with the War Powers Resolution and the actions of his predecessors. A more interesting debate is whether this action, justified on humanitarian grounds, is in the national security interest of the National Security of the US.
President Barack Obama inherited a foreign policy that has now outlived its usefulness, and he has struggled to change direction quickly enough.
The old foreign policy, developed during the Cold War and adapted for the "War on Terror" was based on chess, positioning powerful pieces deep into "enemy" territory, eliminating or blocking powerful threats, and keeping the opponent in check. What most Americans didn't understand, however, is that while we were maneuvering deeper into the Middle East, the populace was playing a different game, the East Asian Go.
In Go, a game that uses tactics mastered by the Chinese Warrior Sun Tzu, each player attempts to surround the opponent's pieces with their own. Areas of strength, deep within enemy lines, can easily be surrounded by a strategic opponent, costing the player the game. The US lost this version of Go as its foreign policy in the last 30+ years alienatied the people of the Middle East and North Africa. The further the US pushed into the region, the more it found itself encircled. Washington. launched military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, supported dictators who offered economic and political stability, and tended to ignore politically-inconvenient oppression.
With the fall of Ben Ali in Tunisia and Mubarak in Egypt, America's chess pieces are now surrounded, and Obama's old allies in the region are now liabilities.
That is the context for the intervention in Libya and US national security. Qaddafi is arguably a more dangerous "chess piece" if he is confronted, and Libya is not strategically important, in the traditional sense of the concept. The Obama administration was divided as Salon's Heather Michon summarised:
The emerging storyline is that (female) Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice and National Security Advisor Samantha Power stampeded over the (male) heavy-hitters like Defense Secretary Robert Gates and National Security Adviser Thomas E. Donilon to convince Barack Obama to take military action in Libya.
In other words, the human rights activists in the administration, the Go players, saw the need to get involved militarily to prevent wholesale slaughter, while the established representatives of traditional national security models, the chess players of the administration, opposed the move.
The Go team saw something that the chess team had missed: Libya was the continuation of a pro-democracy movement in the Middle East and North Africa, and this populist movement was the best hope of securing national security in a post-dictator region. Supporting democracy would win the hearts and minds of the people, who are in the position to take over.
Clinton, Rice, and Power also recognized that this fire of revolution was unlikely to stop soon. When Tunisia was falling, most so-called-analysts argued that Egypt was a stable government, unlikely to fall. Even in Bahrain, most experts initially downplayed the likelihood of widespread revolution. Al Jazeera, which was more optimistic than most publications about the likelihood of protests there, wrote this on February 12:
Although most analysts do not see any immediate risk of revolt after popular uprisings toppled the leaders of Tunisia and Egypt, the small island nation is considered the most vulnerable to unrest among Gulf Arab countries.
Since then we've seen protests in other Gulf Nations, most notably Yemen and Saudi Arabia. One look at The Guardian's interactive timeline is enough to convince most non-believers: this revolution is a hot flame, and it will take down anyone who underestimates it. The human rights activists in the Obama administration recognised that this revolutionary fervor, if suppressed, would smolder. If this happened, the U.S. would be blamed for stepping into places like Iraq for imperialist reasons, but staying out of places like Libya when innocent lives were on the line. In the end, Barack Obama agreed.
General David Petraeus, prominent in the re-shaping of the US military appraoch, figured out that in Iraq and Afghanistan national security could be safeguarded if the standard of living of foreign people improved. As long as insurgents and U.S. armed forces were busy destroying infrastructure and inflicting collateral damage, no progress would be made. So the challenge for the US was how it could "win the hearts and minds" of the residents by providing civilians with security, economic and political power, and the capital needed to jump-start improvements in infrastructure.
In other words, Petraeus decided to fight for human rights in order to fight a war. Where the US has been successful in improving living conditions, they have also been effective in their military approach. Where they have failed with the first goal, they have failed with the second.
In the Middle East and North Africa, the world has the ability to reset the status quo, and win the hearts and minds, by supporting these revolutions. Clinton gets this. As I noted last week, she sees an uncensored Internet, a contemporary "Radio Free Europe," as a primary tool to give people a voice and break the hold of repressive regimes.
Clinton understood that you can win a chess match and lose a Go game, and she understood that Gaddafi wasn't bombing a rebellion, he was bombing a movement.
But the Obama Administration is likely to struggle in applying this kind of thinking to places like Yemen and Bahrain, let alone Saudi Arabia. These governments have been propped up by the West --- actually, by the entire world --- for a long time because they offer access to oil and an ally against the rise of radical Islam. The trick then becomes how the West can support democracy without turning on long-time allies and ruining diplomatic credibility and trust.
In the end, the US will likely pursue a foreign policy that balances these considerations. We should not be surprised that, in the end, "national security" drives governments to pursue selfish policies rather than to back the ambitions of others. Still, Obama may be remembered for leading an important transitional administration, one that increasingly considers human rights as a matter of national security.
He will be remembered for trying to change the game from chess to Go. I the end, he will be judged on whether or not he can win both games at once.