04/06/2011 03:50 pm ET Updated Jun 06, 2011

The Reagan and Obama "Doctrines" vs. the State Department

In October 1983 shortly after a terrorist attack against the US Marines peacekeeping mission outside of Beirut left 241 dead, a call came from a regional organization in the Caribbean -- the OECS, the Organization of Eastern Caribbean States -- urgently requesting US military intervention in Grenada. Two weeks earlier, Maurice Bishop, the radical leftist leader of Grenada, had been deposed and killed in a coup launched by an even more radical and violent group. There were reports of soldiers firing into the crowds. No one knew much about the men who engineered the coup. They had the backing of Cuban advisors. Other nations in the Eastern Caribbean viewed them as a security risk to their own countries. In addition, there were about 1,000 US medical students on the island whose safety, if not lives, were imperiled.

Shortly after the OECS request, Reagan ordered the landing on Grenada of 1,900 US Army Rangers and Marines, supported by elements of the Air Force and Navy, in conjunction with a small cadre from the OECS member states. In modern terms, the ambition was regime change, coupled with avoiding a humanitarian disaster -- the killing or kidnapping of the US medical students, and a rampage against civilians.

At the time of the incident, I served as Counsel to the US Delegation to the United Nations and was asked to help prepare the speech justifying US military intervention. The issue was whether to characterize the Grenada operation as a "fluke," an isolated incident in US foreign relations reflecting no more than the reaction to a set of unique circumstances, or whether to cast the US intervention as a doctrine -- part of the pattern and strategy of US foreign policy.

UN Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick favored the latter course. As she saw it, the whole world knew that if the operation was really only about humanitarian protection, it could have been much more limited. And, if protection of nationals was solely what we were truly interested in, we could have done an Entebbe-style rescue. Rather, as was clear from National Security Council deliberations, national security interests in the region took priority. We didn't want another Cuba or Nicaragua in the Caribbean. If we could be effective in Grenada, that would be a signal to Nicaragua and the USSR to rethink their intervention in El Salvador and elsewhere, or face similar consequences. And, we didn't want the United States to be perceived as a "paper-tiger" in the aftermath of its non-response to the Marine barracks bombing.

With that in mind, the speech I helped draft for delivery at the United Nations mentioned the various circumstances prompting US intervention, without describing the circumstances as so unique as to not warrant a repetition of our actions. Shortly before delivery, the State Department at the highest levels insisted on inserting into the UN speech reference to Grenada as a "unique situation," a "unique combination of circumstances," and, "very particular, very unusual, perhaps unique circumstances." Clearly, the State Department favored signaling neither the prospect of US intervention elsewhere; nor dilution of the norm against intervention by manufactured humanitarian concerns. In the end it hardly mattered. Because Reagan took decisive military action, the lesson was hardly lost on Nicaragua or the USSR: a decline in Nicaragua's subversive activities quickly followed.

In considering the response of President Obama and the State Department to the Libya crisis, immediate parallels to the Grenada experience come to mind. Like Grenada, in the Libya situation a regional organization, the Arab League, called for intervention. Like Grenada, Libya presented the prospect of an immediate humanitarian disaster. And, like President Reagan in Grenada, President Obama and his team had larger national security interests in mind.

As David Sanger, the chief New York Times correspondent, pointed out in last Sunday's NY Times, "The Larger Game in the Middle East: Iran" the White House deliberations over intervention in Libya were significantly shaped by how Iran was likely to respond. Thomas Donilon, the NSC Advisor, and Benjamin Rhodes, the Senior NSC aide, were quoted as pointing out that they realized that the mullahs in Tehran were watching Mr. Obama's every move.

The issue facing the Obama team, similar to that facing the Reagan team, was whether to send a clear signal to another country -- here Iran -- that intervention was not a fluke prompted by "unique" circumstances, but part of a policy of US support for democracy in overthrowing "illegitimate" regimes, and that policy applied to Iran as it did to Libya.

Yet, as in justifying the Grenada operation, reference to "unique circumstances" made its way into President Obama's defense of our entry into Libya. On March 28th, President Obama announced, "In this particular country -- Libya; at this particular moment, we were faced with the prospect of violence on a horrific scale." Thus Iran was signaled that our intervention in support of democracy was not a precursor to action elsewhere.

Further diluting any signal to Iran on the need to allow democratic reform or face the consequences, has been the State Department's continued failure to legitimize the major Iranian resistance group, the Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK), by taking them off the State Department's list of terrorist organizations. A review of that listing was recently ordered by a US court of appeals which questioned the evidence supporting the listing. US delisting would, if taken, follow the actions of both the UK and the EU, who have taken the MEK off similar lists for lack of any evidence of resort to terrorism. The MEK was originally placed on the list by the Clinton Administration as a "goodwill gesture," which they hoped would result in better dialogue with Iran's rulers. It did not. The Bush Administration did not take the MEK off the list for fear that delisting would enrage Iran while we had vulnerable troops in Iraq.

But, despite the urgings of a roster of high-ranking former officials from the Reagan through the Bush Administrations that the MEK be delisted, the Obama State Department has resisted. Thus the MEK, which favors replacing the mullahs with democratic rule, remains shackled. One can only wonder, as the Libya crisis winds to an uncertain conclusion, whether such a posture is not inconsistent with the very purposes that guided President Obama's intervention in Libya: promotion of democracy, avoidance of humanitarian disasters, and enhancement of US strategic interests.

Allan Gerson is Chairman of AG International Law, a Washington DC firm specializing in complex issues of international law and politics. He is the author of The Kirkpatrick Mission: Diplomacy without Apology and The Price of Terror: How the Families of the Victims of Pan Am 103 Brought Libya to Justice. He also serves as co-counsel to the MEK in its effort at delisting.