On Libya: Obama Takes a Page from Wolfowitz's Handbook

March 23rd, 2011 at 10:56 am | 20 Comments |

| Print

In late February, as the Libyan crisis unfolded, former Undersecretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz made an impassioned plea for the United States to intervene. Wolfowitz argued that “when there are so many things that could be done to help the unbelievably brave Libyan people — without any risk to American lives — it is shameful to be sitting on our hands.”

The same Barack Obama who once breezily dismissed Wolfowitz as an “arm-chair weekend warrior” has now embraced an only slightly modified version of his doctrine of preemptive intervention to frame his case for U.S. involvement in Libya.  And the same Paul Wolfowitz who fretted Obama would walk away from George W. Bush’s “Freedom Agenda” in the Middle East was tenaciously defending the emerging White House Libya policy from sniping by the likes of George Will on Sunday’s talk shows.

Stranger bedfellows are almost impossible to imagine. We would appear to be in Lion-Lies-Down-With-Lamb territory. But this entente très cordiale is simply the latest confirmation of Lord Palmerston’s dictum about the primacy of permanent national interests in foreign relations.

The conventional thinking had been that President Obama’s centrist leanings combined with fears of political blowback from a U.S. electorate fatigued by global nation-building duties (along with the predictable condemnations from implacable foes and fair-weather friends) were staying him from unsheathing the sword in Libya.

Now some unconventional thinking is challenging those assumptions.

In an intriguing and well-sourced piece on Time magazine’s Swampland political blog, it seems Wolfowitz’s thinking didn’t so much anticipate the eventual White House Libyan strategy as provide the actual blueprint.

The National Security Council’s Ben Rhodes is quoted as saying the long-term benefits of saving lives in Libya, protecting democratic change elsewhere in the region and — most tellingly — ensuring “the ability of collective action to be a tool in circumstances like this” eventually outweighed short-term  domestic and international concerns. The despised policy of preventive intervention was essentially taken out of mothballs and re-commissioned.

President Obama, who once said he would abandon the Bush Administration’s “idealistic” approach to Middle Eastern affairs in favor of what he called a “realist” policy, at some point discovered realism was an animating principle of his predecessor’s policy all along.

Wolfowitz was never the promiscuous, shoot-first-think-later interventionist he has been caricatured as: it was he himself who famously said the U.S. could never be expected to play the role of global policeman in an unpredictable and increasingly fractious post-Cold War world. What he argued for was selective preemptive intervention — preferably internationally sanctioned — when humanitarian considerations and U.S. national interests converged. Libya presented a case study in the need for precisely such action. A Libya embroiled in an ongoing, high- or low-intensity civil war — a chaotic situation certain to be exploited by jihadists — would clearly trigger seismic shockwaves throughout the country and the region, imperiling U.S. interests. So would a Libya controlled by a renascent Qaddafi bent on terrorizing his people and likely to once again make terrorism the country’s primary export. Intervention would also send a clear message to other Arab leaders challenged by popular discontent who might be flirting with Qaddafi’s notion that political power re-grows and is reasserted from the barrel of a gun.

The original Wolfowitz Doctrine stressed that vital security, economic and geopolitical factors made it imperative for the U.S. to foster Middle Eastern stability. It also recognized permanent stabilization could only come about by engaging the so-called Arab street rather than just the kleptocratic, sometimes theocratic leaderships and by vigorously promoting the items on what came to be known as the “Freedom Agenda”. This call for the spread of democratic values and institutions in a region where even mild dissent is often punishable by medieval cruelties was seen as the only antidote to ongoing repression: repression which provides radical jihadists with an endless supply of eager volunteers.

Wolfowitz’s initial qualms notwithstanding, President Obama’s realist school of diplomacy has always owed an unacknowledged debt to the supposedly misty-eyed idealism of the “Freedom Agenda”. The President’s unyielding emphasis on the need for comprehensive reform and restructuring in the Middle East is largely a by-any-other-name extension of policies initiated under the Bush Administration.

But what amounted to discredited U.S. unilateralism in Iraq (never mind the participation of more than 40 other countries in military and support roles) made the President pessimistic about the chances of America being able to coordinate multilateral action in response to the worsening Libyan situation. And a genuine exercise in American go-it-alone-ism in a Muslim country was, frankly, unthinkable at this juncture.

His sometimes fuzzy rhetoric notwithstanding, the President is on record as saying persuasive cases can and indeed should be made for humanitarian intervention on both moral and national security grounds. “More and more, we all confront difficult questions about how to prevent the slaughter of civilians by their own government, or to stop a civil war whose violence and suffering can engulf an entire region,” he said in his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech. “I believe that force can be justified on humanitarian grounds, as it was in the Balkans, or in other places that have been scarred by war. Inaction tears at our conscience and can lead to more costly intervention later.”

The President was finally prompted to act last week when a resurgent Qaddafi appeared poised to commit grand-scale atrocities in eastern Libya. In the face of open military skepticism about the prudence of pursuing a Libyan mission, the President — backed by Secretary of State Clinton and key National Security Council personnel — charged his United Nations ambassador Susan Rice with seeking support for a buffed-up version of a Lebanese resolution calling for a no-fly zone.

She succeeded.  Last Thursday the U.N. gave broad support to “all measures necessary” to protect Libyan civilians, a move sanctioned by an Arab League traditionally as united by its members’ loathing of Qaddafi as the “Zionist Entity”.

Frankly, Security Council Resolution 1973 reads like a slightly wordier version of Wolfowitz’s robust February 22 critique, one in which he outlined a series of urgent actions the U.S. and the international community should be taking to contain the Libyan crisis.

In the Libyan scenario, by yoking U.S. diplomatic objectives — namely, the removal of Qaddafi and  his criminally insane form of despotism — to U.N.-mandated military objectives intended to protect civilians from wholesale slaughter, the President has inaugurated what he must hope will be viewed as a kinder, gentler version of the Wolfowitz Doctrine.

The emerging Obama Doctrine takes much the same Big Picture view of U.S. interests as the Wolfowitz version. And the same U.S. Big Stick will be wielded when necessary — if only in conjunction with international coalitions at this stage. But it’s far more soft-spoken and far less clearly articulated than its predecessor. Detail, clarity and a much-needed sense of urgency still need to be added to make the political case for Libyan intervention to the American people.

But certainly the cerebral President has proved the theoretical case for intervention to his own satisfaction based on both ethical considerations and the overriding national interest. Equally certain is his belief that intervention now will preclude the need for an even costlier Libyan intervention in the not too distant future.

Recent Posts by Tim Hodgson

20 Comments so far ↓

  • ottovbvs

    Obama = Wolfowitz…Yeah right.

  • dugfromthearth

    This is why I never eat chicken. Wolfowitz once recommended eating chicken, and since I don’t want to be Wolfowitz I have avoided eating chicken ever since.

    If anyone has a complete list of things Wolfowitz has recommended that therefore need to be avoided, please let me know.

    This making my own decisions instead of simply reacting to Wolfowitz is just too hard.

  • Watusie

    What bullshit. Firstly, Wolfowitz wanted the U.S. to take the lead in getting U.N. approval. Which Obama did not do, because to do so would be to hand Gaddafi another propaganda tool: “this is a U.S.-led crusade; the U.N. is just a puppet of the U.S., etc.”

    Also, I seriously question if Russia and China would have given their tacit approval if the U.S. had taken the lead – they are not well known for wanting to sign up for what we propose.

    Secondly, and probably more importantly, Wolfowitz wanted immediate “recognition” of the rebels as the “authority” or “government” in the cities where they are holed up.

    That is just nuts.

    The less America-centric this intervention is, and the more options we keep open, the more likely it will succeed. I realize that fails to provide the desired testosterone boost that Wolfowitz and his ilk are seeking. That, however, is not really a priority right now.

    • Traveler


      You certainly have good points, but I am not so inclined as to dismiss the internal maneuvrings out of hand. If BO really dithered by acceding to Gates mis-advice (which seems the case), and then changed horses in midstream to go after the resolution, it sure looks like it was the ladies that did the job, particularly Susan Rice. (No offense Primrose!) Got to give credit where it is due.

      The key was getting China and Russia on board, and if Ms. Rice pulled that off so fast, I would love to see how it was played out. Frankly, I don’t see the French and British being any more palatable to the dictator regimes. I think it was the Arab League finally speaking up, notwithstanding their mealymouthed comments after the fact.

      This is history going on, and I cannot wait to read the whole book. Just hope it turns out that not too many Libyans write it in blood.

  • talkradiosucks.com

    Leaving aside the obvious retort — that anything Wolfowitz says is immediately suspect for obvious reasons — you don’t have to get too far into this before it falls apart.

    “Wolfowitz argued that “when there are so many things that could be done to help the unbelievably brave Libyan people — without any risk to American lives — it is shameful to be sitting on our hands.””

    No risk to American lives? Guess he should tell that to the pilots of that F15 that went down yesterday.

    The humanitarian argument also fails pretty quickly. How many more malaria or AIDS victims could we save for the billions of dollars this will eventually cost us?

    • Traveler

      Would that the money were to be spent on such vital aspects. The reality is that it would go to more tax cuts…

  • bill Gluck

    The Wolfowitz red herring aside, this is Morgenthau realpolitik versus Wilsonian humanitarian idealism. The timing of our actions was unfortunate. The no-fly zone might have had an impact a week earlier, but the president did not want to move (and rightly so) before there was an international coalition in place (especially an Arab league acquiescence).

    The dichotomy between American freelancing and international action created a timing problem. Now, I believe, we have only two options: Kill him (apologies for the bluntness) or disengage and do a George Aiken and declare victory.

    The second option appears problematic (where does the command and control come from?) so it appears the first option — as unpleasant sounding as it may be — is the only viable one if we want to hold to the mantle of hegemon (which surely is a debate we ought to have).

  • COProgressive

    “In late February, as the Libyan crisis unfolded, former Undersecretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz made an impassioned plea for the United States to intervene. Wolfowitz argued that “when there are so many things that could be done to help the unbelievably brave Libyan people — without any risk to American lives — it is shameful to be sitting on our hands.””

    Wolfowitz is a dyed in the wool Neo-Nitwit who’s main goal is to get the US involved, militarily, in any conflict that arises throughout the world, but especially in the Middle East, but Africa will do as along as it’s the US against a Muslim country. We must ask ourselves two questions, “Why does Wolfowitz wish to get the US involved in another conflict, and why would any thinking individual care what Wolfowitz thinks?

  • Elvis Elvisberg

    Wolfowitz was never the promiscuous, shoot-first-think-later interventionist he has been caricatured as

    Robert McNamera was a pretty sharp guy in business & at the World Bank. Charles Manson co-wrote a Beach Boys song. But you tend to be remembered for the people you get killed for no reason. Life is so unfair.

    Obama’s response doesn’t have a damn thing to do with anything Wolfowitz said anyway. Working with existing institutions in response to a crisis is what Bush Sr. did in Somalia & Iraq, and what Clinton did in the Balkans, for example. The Bush Jr. administration was a holiday from history.

  • Watusie

    Somewhat OT, but Think Progress has just nailed Newt:

    Earlier this month, former Speaker of the House and current presidential hopeful Newt Gingrich was hammering President Obama for not intervening in Libya. Asked, “what would you do about Libya?” Gingrich responded: “Exercise a no-fly zone this evening. … We don’t need to have the United Nations. All we have to say is that we think that slaughtering your own citizens is unacceptable and that we’re intervening.” During appearances that same day, Gingrich also said that he would provide help to the Libyan rebels on top of the no-fly zone….

    Now that Obama has initiated a no-fly zone over Libya, Gingrich has completely reversed his position with no apparent explanation. He told Politico over the weekend — less than 24 hours after Obama took action — that “it is impossible to make sense of the standard for intervention in Libya except opportunism and news media publicity.” This morning on the Today Show, he said plainly, “I would not have intervened”.


    Why is Wolfowitz being published in the WSJ? Why is Newt appearing on the Today Show? These two pathetic individuals have as much credibility as…um… a very un-credible thing.

    So much for “left wing bias” in journalism.

  • Frumplestiltskin

    Where is there the slightest evidence that Wolfowitz had any effect on the thought processes that lead to the action? There is not any because it doesn’t exist. Why this urge to make Wolfowitz relevant? Traveler is right, it was Rice, Clinton, and Powers who pushed for the action and no way any of them pay the slightest bit of attention to Wolfowitz.

    And this line is just nuts: the President has inaugurated what he must hope will be viewed as a kinder, gentler version of the Wolfowitz Doctrine.

    It is nowhere close to Wolfowitz, it seems in many ways the anti thesis. Build overwhelming international consensus before acting, the US willing to take a back seat long term operationally this is not Wolfowitz at all. Wolfowitz wanted to impose freedom from without, Obama believes in it developing organically and therefore far more likely to stick. Without the revolution there would have been no action. Wolfowitz helped create the bullshit rational, non existent WMD’s, to get us into a war of HIS choosing.

    Look, I am not even saying Wolfowitz is by definition wrong (though Iraq certainly did not help his case) but to imply that Wolfowitz and Obama are bed fellows is just so absurd.

    Libya is sui generis.

  • Kurlis

    See? I told you Obama was a neo-con. But you didn’t believe me. I’m just glad Obama has finally seen the light and decided to abandon the Democrat Party and the American left and to side with conservatives and the Republican Party.

    • Traveler

      Yo Kurlis,

      Two things. When did you ever say he was a neocon? And seeing as how the Refuglicans are falling over themselves to NOT join him, how does it come off that he is joining those cretins?

      That the best you can do?

    • Elvis Elvisberg

      It all started when Pres. Obama pushed for the Heritage Foundation-created health insurance reform policy that had been sponsored by Bob Dole, Dick Lugar, Chck Grassley, and Orrin Hatch. That’s how we knew he was a neocon.

      [I]n 1991, a group of conservative academics proposed an alternative: the individual mandate, which says that everyone who can afford health-care insurance has to buy it. That means no free riders, no healthy people waiting until they get sick to buy insurance or stick the rest of us with the costs of their care. “We did it because we were concerned about the specter of single-payer insurance, which isn’t market-oriented, and we didn’t think was a good idea,” says Wharton economist Mark Pauly, one of the idea’s authors.

      For the next 18 years or so, that’s the role the individual mandate played. It was what Republicans proposed as a smaller-government alternative to the health-care plans favored by liberals. In November 1993, Sen. John Chafee, a Republican from Rhode Island, proposed the Health Equity and Access Reform Today Act. The legislation became the GOP’s semiofficial response to President Bill Clinton’s health-care bill, and it was eventually co-sponsored by such influential Republicans as Bob Dole, Richard Lugar, Chuck Grassley, and Orrin Hatch. The other major Republican alternative, the Consumer Choice Health Security Act, included Jesse Helms and Trent Lott as cosponsors, and also included an individual mandate. …

      In Massachusetts, Mitt Romney’s 2005 health-care plan used an individual mandate. … As recently as June 2009, Grassley was telling Fox News that there was a “bipartisan consensus” in favor of the individual mandate. “That’s individual responsibility,” he said, “and even Republicans believe in individual responsibility.”

  • Frumplestiltskin

    Traveler, the funny thing is Kurlis made his statement just after I laid out precisely why Obama is NOT a neo con, now if he had made an attempt at rebuttal of what I said and in what ways I was wrong and then insisted Obama was a neo con, that I could understand. Instead he pretended it didn’t exist because he obviously had no rebuttal, yet he still posted what he posted. I just find that utterly odd and inexplicable.

    • Traveler


      How can you find that odd and inexplicable? It is totally par for the course.

      I wish there was one single republican candidate worthy of respect. As for senators, perhaps Lugar, and for much of the time, Graham. Brown also seems to have spine and brain connected. But they are few and far between compared to the rest of the troglodytes. And the deep conservative posters here are equally disappointing.

  • Kurlis

    President Obama most definitely IS a neo-con, thank goodness. Actions speak much louder than words. Watch what Obama does, not what he says. Even Dennis Kucinich has called for Obama’s impeachment. Kucinich only does that to neo-cons.

    Welcome to the Republican Party, President Obama and fellow conservative!