Libya: Fighting the Last War

If there is one thing that is certain about recent events in the Middle East, it is uncertainty. Who would have predicted six months ago that the immolation of a college-educated street peddler in a rural Tunisian town would lead to the fall of the regimes in Tunisia and Egypt, the descent of Libya into civil war and widespread unrest against autocratic regimes throughout the region?

The broad impact of social media, as well as television outlets like Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiya, has radically altered the political and social landscape of the Middle East. For Arab governments -- governments that face a vast array of different challenges in each of their societies -- this has meant a rapid and even desperate re-examination of their approach to governing. Who would have imagined six months ago that the Syrian government would talking about reform or that the rulers of Bahrain would be calling in troops from Saudi Arabia?

All this fast-paced change has also meant some serious re-examination by the international community, including the United States. France, for example, which sat out the Iraq war and embraced Qaddafi until recently, has taken the aggressive lead in attacking the Libyan regime. Meanwhile, the Obama administration, mindful of the errors of the Iraq invasion and subsequent quagmire, has taken a very cautious approach to intervention.

But Obama's critics in the United States don't seem to have taken full measure of the rapid changes in the Middle East. Republican leaders like John McCain and Newt Gingrich pressed President Obama for an early and aggressive military intervention, apparently dismissing the sensitive political and diplomatic issues in the region, as well as the missteps of the Iraq war. Clearly, theirs was a case of rigid thinking and an unwillingness to carefully examine a fluid, volatile situation. In short, a knee-jerk reaction based on fixed ideas and doctrine.

However, it wasn't only the Republicans who had a knee-jerk reaction. There are also many on the left who seem to be looking in the rear-view mirror at the Iraq experience, even when the Obama administration was displaying deliberative caution, a collaborative international approach and a strong sensitivity to the image of America in the region. While there is great uncertainty in this military and political intervention, the lesson going forward must be one of flexibility, collaboration and caution -- traits that were decidedly missing in the Bush administration's foreign policy.

There is an old saying that "Generals are always fighting the last war" -- developing strategy and tactics for whatever battle they recently fought. This is also true in politics and diplomacy, where governments and their leaders develop fixed ideas about every conflict so that the question becomes "How do we fit this situation into our familiar box of ideas?" In fact, the Middle East today ought to be a prime case of thinking outside of the box. There is not going to be a one-size-fits-all solution, either militarily or politically. And the solution that works today may not work tomorrow, or the next day.

President Obama has been criticized from both the right and the left for his Libya policy over the past few weeks. And those critics may turn out to be correct. However, considering the uncertain and fluid nature of the crisis, Obama's policy approach has been fundamentally sound. Many have argued that his cautious style is too timid or unduly moderate. But a steady, deliberative hand is arguably the most effective approach to leadership in uncertain times. What is certain is that old thinking -- fighting the last war -- will not work in an era of rapid change.