The conflict in this part of north Africa is the first major new overseas challenge since the president took office in January 2009. The way he handles it is then bound to have important consequences, for Obama’s political future and the US’s geopolitical position alike.
The complex issues of grand strategy he has earlier faced include how to deal with Iran (in relation both to Tehran’s nuclear plans, and to the crisis following the stolen election of June 2009); the Israel-Palestinian conflict; and the situations he inherited over Iraq and Afghanistan.
In 2009-10, President Obama fulfilled his campaign pledge to withdraw the majority of its forces from Iraq in a way that left the United States both with some power over Iraq’s political future and some exposure to the consequences of the Iraqi government’s failures. In Afghanistan, he continued the existing policy, then doubled its stake by increasing US troop deployments.
None of these problems has been solved, all can prove combustible at short notice. Together and singly, they pose serious geopolitical questions about the US’s role in the world at a time of straitened economic circumstances. Now the turmoil in the middle east - most violently in Libya - poses Washington a further question that is starting to reveal uncomfortable truths about the limits of American power.
The third phase
The first phase of the north African revolution, in Tunisia and Egypt, left Washington marginalised. The mass peaceful protests in these countries that led to the resignation of their presidents also exposed the gap between America’s theoretical aspiration to support democracy everywhere and the reality of its practical commitment to dictators - just so long as they supported American interests and refrained from too openly opposing Israel.
The events in Egypt, a key US ally, were especially painful. Between the lines of the administration’s early reactions - from secretary of state Hillary Clinton calling Hosni Mubarak a “friend of my family” to the president’s request for “stability” and then “orderly transition” - the contradiction between Wilsonian rhetoric and Bismarckian pragmatism was gaping. The solid networks of arms sales, military-training contracts and diplomatic complicity that tied the US to Mubarak’s regime (and the Egyptian army) were laid bare.
But the exhiliration and relative swiftness of a self-generated Egyptian triumph also protected Washington from more than deep embarrassment. Now, the third north African outbreak faces it with a more practical problem. Libya’s raging internal conflict leaves the US bereft of a clear policy and all but acknowledging the constraints on its strength to act.
So far the administration’s public stance has been cautious, albeit with a steady escalation of rhetoric as the first eruption of protest in Benghazi in mid-February 2011 has given way to armed confrontation between supporters and opponents of Muammar Gaddafi. That may be called wisdom or timidity or mere hesitation, and it is certainly a change from the willingness of previous administrations (notably that of George W Bush) to act before thinking.
True, the statements have gradually become firmer, with Obama on 7 March 2011 raising the prospect of more stringent diplomatic and even military action to help the Libyan rebels. But the evident concern to avoid action that could be seen as interventionist, and to explore whether there could be a role for Nato, reflects inner doubt and confusion.
Yet if the appetite for imposing democracy has withered, leading administration figures such as defence secretary Robert Gates and Obama’s new chief-of-staff Bill Daley are notably hostile even to a limited show of force, such as the idea of a “no-fly zone” that would deprive Gaddafi’s forces of crucial military capacity.
Such a policy might have been imposed on Saddam Hussein’s Iraq before the American-led invasion, but Gates - himself a holdover from the George W Bush era - has been emphatic in warning of how big the stakes (and possible costs) were in taking such a course; while Daley was even more scornful of the no-fly zone’s proponents (they “have no idea what they're talking about").
The president and other officials have insisted that a no-fly zone over parts of Libya is one of a range of possible operations under consideration. Yet the defence secretary and the chief-of-staff’s candid statements are an admission - perhaps for the first time in public - of the physical as well as political limits to American commitment; of the hard choices that presidents and their advisers have to make; and of the fact that the Pentagon’s resources, vast as they are, are not infinite.
The military option
The United States’s military assets in and around the Mediterranean remain formidable. Its nuclear-carrier strike-forces are among the most imposing agglomerations of military power ever assembled; each is the platform for close to 100 strike-aircraft and helicopters, and is supported by cruisers, frigates and destroyers with specialist functions. A strike-force can carry thousands of marines and supplies, as well as logistical support for substantial expeditionary forces.
The US navy has ten of these nuclear-carrier strike-forces; one is “home ported” in Japan, the others are based in the United States but can be fairly swiftly “inchopped” (deployed) to the sixth fleet in the Mediterranean or the fifth fleet in the Red Sea and Indian Ocean.
There is no absolute shortage of forces, then. But as Robert Gates has pointed out, the navy and the marine corps (which is part of it) are heavily engaged in Afghanistan and elsewhere. Any operations against Libya would demand subtracting forces from other duties and be hugely expensive, and face political constraints too at a time when public support for the US’s war in Afghanistan has declined and the appetite for further military campaigns is limited.
The withdrawing roar
During most of the last century, Americans cherished their national self-image as the ultimate guarantor of freedom and democracy in the world. Woodrow Wilson portrayed the 1917-18 war as a crusade for democracy; Franklin D Roosevelt proclaimed the 1941-45 war as a sacred national trust; John F Kennedy said Americans would “support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty.”
Most Americans would probably still like to think of their country as committed to JFK’s vision. But the third phase of revolt in north Africa in effect asks in sharp form what price they are ready to pay to ensure others’ liberty.
The events in Libya, moreover, raise the question at a time when the Iraqi and Afghan precedents make United States intervention in a Muslim-majority country less attractive than ever on all sides; and when Americans’ new consciousness of constraint makes them less willing than at any time since 1941 to take on the responsibilities of the international dragon-slayer. The limits of power are coming home with a vengeance.
The article was orginally published on the opendemocracy.net
Godfrey Hodgson was director of the Reuters' Foundation Programme at Oxford University, and before that the Observer's correspondent in the United States and foreign editor of the Independent.