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Triumph of the New Wilsonism

Authors: Nikolas Gvosdev, and Ray Takeyh, Hasib J. Sabbagh Senior Fellow for Middle East Studies
Jan/Feb 2012
The National Interest


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.

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