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Dabbling in the Arab World

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The Obama Doctrine that the American media keeps telling me exists still doesn't exist. The non-proof lies in Tripoli. There may be pieces of American bombs scattered around the city, but the symbol of no direct intervention (read: invasion or deployment of ground forces) in what has become a six month-long civil war is a stark contrast between President Obama's vision for United States foreign policy and the vision of some of his predecessors. A new Arab Blueprint of sorts, where the U.S. doesn't get too directly involved, is at work now but it's a view that is rooted in a lot of past dabbling in Arab politics.

"In the early days of this intervention the United States provided the bulk of the firepower, and then our friends and allies stepped forward," President Obama said in a broadcast on Monday. This is a visible switch in behavior from the Freedom Agenda of President Bush to the Let Them Work it Out Themselves (different than the Lead from Behind assessment) view of Obama that is being tested in the Arab world. The merits on whether the action against Libya was worth it in the first place are irrelevant and premature, since the conflict isn't over. Instead, this is about Obama choosing to adopt a blast from the past: staying out of it or letting another nation take the lead. That certainly isn't true for Afghanistan and Iraq, where the U.S. seems to take on more responsibility each day, but those aren't organic nationalist movements. Obama has continued direct interventionism in Afghanistan and Iraq, but in North Africa and the larger Middle East, the U.S. has stepped back.

The modern Middle Eastern and North African nations that the U.S. is now dealing with were created out of unshackling themselves from the colonial rule of European nations. Libya itself gained its independence from Italy in 1951, but the Sykes-Picot agreement between the French and British in 1916 created nearly everything else. Arab nationalist movements popped up to remove the European status quo: Egypt in 1919, Iraq in 1920, Syria in 1949, Libya in 1951, Algeria in 1962, Yemen in 1967. The British bore the brunt of these problems, and as T.E. Lawrence wrote in Lawrence of Arabia, "We are today not far from a disaster," as Mesopotamia slowly eroded the empire's foothold there and forced the relinquishing of territory. The U.S. role in all of this was choosing to enter World War I because President Wilson argued that if Britain was defeated, America would also fall. The end of the war brought the dissolution of the old Ottoman Empire, and a lot of blame for such a volatile Arab region gets placed on Wilsonian diplomacy because he wanted colonialism to cease. Wilson may have created the League of Nations, but yes he also was in favor of letting Britain and France divide extremely tribal societies on the whims of diplomats.

For too long the U.S. has favored that status quo instead of what's right for the situation. Wilson teetered between that post-World War I view and a view that every nation was entitled to self-determination and it was the U.S.'s place in the world to protect democracy instead of spreading it itself. It was Wilson who offered the first modern international-centric view of foreign policy and I believe Obama has shown flashes of the same vision. The Wilson view was cut short because of politics, and the U.S. had to follow Britain and France by default.

Could it be that Obama is attempting to stem the tide of making every possible mistake the British made at the height of their power? Part of it is. Yes, there are certain long-held alliances or gentleman's agreements that the U.S. has with these countries, but I believe Obama has begun to see that too much involvement in the Arab world will do a lot of damage. What exactly has the U.S. done to lead in Libya? Britain, France, and now Italy have been the leads in more vocally urging that Colonel Muammar el-Qaddafi step down. The Arab League has recognized the National Transitional Council as the proper representative of the Libyan people, and other parts of the European Union have taken away Col. Qaddafi's financial holdings.

There is a lot of bad information being circulated about what's going on in Libya, and what exactly the U.S. interests were that forced some involvement. Is it too difficult to imagine that the U.S. just chose not to inadvertently own a war that it had no business owning? We are looking at the third completely U.S.-free democratic movement in a region where democracy is not supposed to be let loose. Obama has come full-circle from a Wilsonian view to a Bush view and now to a view that the best kind of intervention in the Arab world is one that hurts the U.S. the least. The Arab Blueprint can't be about the threat of Al Qaeda like it has been for the past 10 years or about the threat of pan arabism that existed before that. The success of Libya's revolution will validate the apparent choice to finally let the region break off the American training wheels that were starting to get so rusty British oil was leaking out.