A question for Romney and Obama about liberalism in American foreign policy
Vladimir Putin accuses the American-led West of acting in dangerous short-sighted opposition to corrupt and brutal but also stabilizing autocratic governments (re Syria) to achieve regime change, but without effectively fostering a viable liberal substitute (re Afghanistan). Rather, Putin says the US, by acting in opposition to autocrats without building a liberal substitute in replacement, is effectively empowering the competing 3rd party in the conflict: radical Islamist revolutionaries.
Perhaps Putin is also making an implied comparison of Obama's haphazard arms-length intervention actions with Syria to the eventual fall-out of American arms-length opposition to the Soviet Union's efforts in 1980s Afghanistan in the conflict that originally empowered al Qaeda for their modern transnational revolution.
In Libya, Obama stretched the novel and controversial international legal theory of Responsibility To Protect past the breaking point to use American power to effect regime change. Obama even touted his legally sloppy, politically limited, ad hoc Libya intervention as the smarter alternative to the Iraq intervention. Yet after regime change, Obama neglected to build a new liberal government in Libya to replace Qaddafi's regime. Libya has since fallen into chaos where Islamists have flourished.
As painful as it is to concede, Putin has a point. In the Arab Spring countries, the liberal activists who appealed to the West have been pushed aside in the regime changes. Without the right support from America, such as we eventually learned to provide Iraq with the counterinsurgency "Surge", the region's liberals simply aren't strong enough to compete for dominance first against the autocrats and then the Islamists.
President Bush recognized a collaborative, patiently assisted, controlled transition would be necessary for liberal reform to succeed in the Middle East:
For decades, free nations tolerated oppression in the Middle East for the sake of stability. In practice, this approach brought little stability, and much oppression. So I have changed this policy. In the short-term, we will work with every government in the Middle East dedicated to destroying the terrorist networks. In the longer-term, we will expect a higher standard of reform and democracy from our friends in the region. Democracy and reform will make those nations stronger and more stable, and make the world more secure by undermining terrorism at it source. Democratic institutions in the Middle East will not grow overnight; in America, they grew over generations. Yet the nations of the Middle East will find, as we have found, the only path to true progress is the path of freedom and justice and democracy.Bush understood the elementary requirements for championing liberalism, so that when the enemy broke the initial plan for building up post-Saddam Iraq, the essential element of the President's commitment to secure and build the peace was sufficient for US forces to make the necessary adjustments to hand off Iraq to his successor as the potential pivotal difference maker in the region. Subsequently in May 2011, at the dawn of the Arab Spring, Obama marked the historic opportunity for peace in the Middle East where "Iraq is poised to play a key role in the region if it continues its peaceful progress":
Indeed, one of the broader lessons to be drawn from this period is that sectarian divides need not lead to conflict. In Iraq, we see the promise of a multiethnic, multisectarian democracy. The Iraqi people have rejected the perils of political violence in favor of a democratic process, even as they’ve taken full responsibility for their own security. Of course, like all new democracies, they will face setbacks. But Iraq is poised to play a key role in the region if it continues its peaceful progress. And as they do, we will be proud to stand with them as a steadfast partner.In his benchmark May 2011 address, President Obama pledged US support, which Arab Spring activists took to heart to risk their lives. But Obama chose to break from his predecessor's commitment to the policy of securing and building the peace. The President subsequently proudly reneged his pledge of US support, resulting in destructive effect for the Arab Spring activists.
Having inherited a winning hand with a historic opportunity to lead the peace, President Obama instead chose to deviate with a plainly misguided and feckless 'lead from behind' approach to the Arab Spring that has actively unseated autocratic regimes willy nilly, yet abandoned relatively liberal factions, while leaving the chaotic conditions on the ground in which jihadist (both al Qaeda-type Sunni and Iran-type Shia) Islamists thrive. Now, with American protection removed from Iraq by Obama, Iraq is in growing danger, too. In comparison, turning his back on the Green Revolution in Iran almost seems benign.
Obama's orientation on Iraq has benefited Iran. Operation Iraqi Freedom had set up a path to deal with Iran that relied on 3 prongs: stabilize Iraq as an American ally, increase sanctions pressure, and support civil reform in Iran. President Obama, instead, did the opposite of all three. Whether that was due to partisan shortsightedness, incompetence, or deliberate intent has been unclear but a clear pattern has emerged of Obama favoring Iran. President Obama's Iraq policy has been consistent with favoritism towards Iran evinced by his position on the Green Revolution in Iran, in contrast to his position on the Arab Spring, and possible pre-Presidency secret agreement with Iran for favorable terms in post-Bush nuclear negotiations. The prospect of Iranian cooperation on Afghanistan may have been a factor, too.
President Obama's fundamental deviation from President Bush's foreign policy, particularly losing Iraq and dropping the Bush Freedom Agenda, has been disastrous and wasted the costly, painfully hard-won, foundational progress achieved under Bush.
We have to start over again. Or not . . .
President Obama, Governor Romney, is America still the 'Leader of the Free World' that actively champions and affirms a liberal world order? Do American leaders still believe liberalism is viable and worth competing for as an international organizing principle?
If America is and you do, then pick up President Bush's definitively liberal course. Learn from Bush's start-up failures and successes, and do it better, wiser, and smarter, but do it - lead the free world. If America is no longer the 'Leader of the Free World' and you do not believe that a liberal world order is worth competing for, then know that acting to tear down an existing autocratic order in a country without empowering a viable acceptably liberal substitute invites the grave danger of empowering an aggressive, opportunistic 3rd party - such as al Qaeda and their fellow travelers - to fill the vacuum we irresponsibly leave behind with an equally or more intolerable organizing principle than the autocrats.
"In the century we're leaving, America has often made the difference between chaos and community; fear and hope. Now, in a new century, we'll have a remarkable opportunity to shape a future more peaceful than the past -- but only if we stand strong against the enemies of peace."
-- President William J. Clinton announcing Operation Desert Fox, December 16, 1998
"You may fly over a land forever; you may bomb it, atomize it, pulverize it and wipe it clean of life—but if you desire to defend it, protect it and keep it for civilization, you must do this on the ground, the way the Roman legions did, by putting your young men in the mud."
-- Military historian T.R. Fehrenbach
07SEP12 addendum: NBC's Richard Engel provides a thumbnail sketch of the anti-liberal course of the Middle East since the Arab Spring and concludes, "What happens if the [sic] Washington continues to watch from afar?" However, Engel undermines his question by sidestepping a thoughtful exploration of the hard choices we face there. Engel only implies the bad-or-worse nature of our options in the Middle East with his premise that the liberal promises of Operation Iraqi Freedom and the Arab Spring have drowned in the region's religious tribal contests. Engel also warns that al Qaeda has been damaged but not defeated, which means the al Qaeda cancer remains dangerous. He refers to the American tactical victory over al Qaeda in Iraq and our broader tactical success combating al Qaeda, and then warns of the dangers of alienating Sunnis and also al Qaeda's intelligent 'shifting antigen' adaptive capability. Engel argues sufficient American forces and commitment on the ground have reliably consistently hurt al Qaeda in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere, while American absence has allowed openings for al Qaeda to make inroads with anti-government forces in the Arab Spring, such as the reformed tactics al Qaeda is now employing in Syria.