This week, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and other Obama Administration officials complained publicly that Iran was "meddling" and "interfering" in events in the Middle East which are threatening the downfall of one U.S. ally after another. But the Obama Administration's response to the latest flashpoint -- Libya -- has been to exhort the Libyan people overthrow its government, declare that Gaddafi "must go", and engage in an embarrassing, intra-administration but thoroughly public debate about U.S. military intervention in Libya.
Can no one in Washington really understand that Iran's narrative of resistance to injustice, foreign occupation, and Western hegemony has more appeal to Middle Eastern publics than the prospect of yet another U.S. military attack on Muslim country?
The Obama Administration's handling of the ongoing conflict in Libya is an unfinished case study in how not to conduct "great power" foreign policy. No less than President Obama himself said publicly that Muammar al-Gaddafi has lost his legitimacy to lead, and that it is time for him to go. But the Obama Administration has no ready means to bring about that outcome, should Gaddafi not be moved by the persuasive power of Obama's words.
Last week, Secretary Clinton stopped just short of calling for the imposition of a "no fly" zone over Libya. After it dawned on people in the Administration that other permanent members of the Security Council might not be prepared to back such a proposal -- Russia's Foreign Minister and China's UN ambassador have both publicly dismissed the idea -- State Department officials floated a scenario with various media outlets that the United States could recognize a "provisional government" in Libya, composed of various figures opposed to Qaddafi, which would then request the United States to impose a no fly zone. But it seems very hard to say just who could constitute a provisional Libyan government with sufficient credibility and presumed legitimacy to play this role.
Even more importantly, Defense Secretary Robert Gates, backed by the senior leadership of America's uniformed military, went public saying that imposition of a no fly zone would first require the United States to attack and destroy much of Libya's military establishment. (Gates made this point not long after his West Point speech in which he argued that any future Defense Secretary who recommended that the United States start another war in the Middle East "should have his head examined".) Secretary Clinton was forced to retreat, telling the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last week that the Obama Administration was a long way from taking a decision about a possible no fly zone over Libya.
It is embarrassing enough that President Obama is demanding things he has no capacity to bring about, and Secretary Clinton talks about having the United States attack another Middle Eastern country when she clearly has not given any serious thought to what such an action would entail. But now Gaddafi is putting up a real fight, and may well be able to hold out for quite a bit longer than anyone in the Obama Administration seems to have considered.
Does no one in Washington remember that, after suffering a substantial military defeat by the United States in 1991, Saddam Husayn put down a (U.S.-instigated) Shi'a rebellion in southern Iraq? After that, with two no-fly zones and a comprehensive oil embargo in place against Iraq, Saddam held on to power in Baghdad for almost another 12 years. And, in the end, it wasn't the Iraqi people who got rid of him. It took a U.S. invasion to do that -- with, of course, horrible consequences for both the Iraqi people and U.S. interests.
Undoubtedly, Gaddafi will crush the rebel forces if he can. At a minimum, though, he is working to hold off the rebels and force the start of a political negotiation -- at the end of which (at least in his vision) he would still be playing a significant role in Libyan politics.
With its no doubt emotionally gratifying but feckless rhetoric demanding Gaddafi's departure, the Obama Administration has ensured that it can play no constructive role in a process of political transition in Libya. Can anyone with a clear head, an appreciable measure of historical memory, and decent intentions honestly think it would be a good idea for the United States to invade Libya--under the rubric of humanitarian intervention and with the stated aim of restoring the Libyan people's "freedom"? Can no one in Washington remember Somalia, let alone Iraq?
All of this is playing out as the Obama Administration seems increasingly inclined to support the Bahraini ruling family in resisting the most important demands of the opposition there for real political reform -- an episode at which we will look more deeply in coming days.