Tuesday, March 15, 2011
I was going to write (yet another) post on intervention in Libya - specifically that the proponents of intervention, particularly a no-fly zone, are conducting their "planning process" backwards. They are starting with the tool they want to use and then backpedaling to find an interest to substantiate U.S. involvement (anywhere from human rights to the imminent threat Quaddafi poses). I was going to show how the process is supposed to work, starting with a grand strategy (or at least regional strategy) and then define the problem, what assets you have, etc. And then I was going to point out that the interventionists are correct on one thing: that President Obama is dithering. But not on what they think he is dithering on. The reason we don't know what to do with the Arab uprisings is that we don't have a coherent strategy to drive our policies and operations in the region - we don't know what we want out of all of this. That's where the administration is dithering, not in not blindly acting as to be seen as doing something.
The reason the previous paragraph wasn't turned into a full post of its own is because as I was about to go through the Powell Doctrine line-by-line, I noticed it, too, has a gaping strategic hole. And I thought that was more important than restating with an example that the U.S. has still not developed coherent regional or global strategies. Anyway, here's the hole: it doesn't account for the existence of any sort of greater strategy. The problem with the Powell Doctrine is the first question (the remaining questions address the operationalization of the intervention), which is the only question to address the reason for intervening. But it merely asks if a vital national security interest is threatened. The current situation in Libya is showing that without a strategic framework that elucidates what is a vital national security interest, when faced with a decision to intervene it can be very difficult to determine the answer to the first question.
As the administration has not yet said what they would want out these uprisings or a more general strategy in North Africa and the Middle East, we can speculate as to what those interests are. Some have argued that protecting the rebels in the east is a vital national security interest because failing to help them will have long term credibility consequences in the region. Others have argued that Quaddafi presents a threat to the United States (I think this is tenuous at best, but it is an argument being made). Or our oil interests in the region. Non-interventionists have argued that none of these are vital national security interests and therefore we shouldn't be involved. So who's correct?
The inaction of the administration (which most of you are aware that I support) indicates that they (and mainly the President) do not feel that any of these things are threats to vital national security issues. But they haven't said so and have been involved in interminable "discussions". These uprisings have been going on for nearly two months now and the administration has yet to define their stance on how to react to them. There is still no strategy, which would tell the U.S. government, the U.S. people, and the citizens and governments of Arab states what we consider to be our vital national security interests. Instead we're in a position where the administration doesn't know what to do, Arab leaders don't know what we're going to do, and the Arab people don't know what to expect from us. This can be a very dangerous situation with so many different expectations on what the U.S. can and should do.
The utility of the Powell Doctrine has been widely debated and untested, but now we're seeing that without a strategic framework to guide decision-makers in determining our vital national security interests, it doesn't much help us in deciding to intervene. It does provide a useful checklist for policymakers before intervening, but not whether or not to intervene. It appears we're getting past the point of useful intervention in Libya, but that doesn't mean the administration shouldn't still develop a strategy (or policy at least) to describe what it wants out of the region. If our current strategic incoherence continues, we are going to constantly revisit the intervention question and still not be able to intelligently address that question. Now would seem like a good time to finally developing viable strategies instead of putting out fires as they arise.