Moral qualms aside, the death of Moammar Gadhafi is a net good — for the people of Libya, for the Middle East, for all those who care about the basic human rights and dignity of a people. Conservative critics vehemently objected to American participation in NATO operations in Libya. They have been proven wrong. “Leading from behind” may make for an uninspiring turn of phrase, but excepting Bosnia, the successful ousting of Gadhafi marks NATO’s greatest post-Soviet success and a demonstration that the cause of freedom can be advanced without an exorbitant cost in American blood and treasure.
And yet, I can’t help but find myself a cynic as I watch this administration celebrate Gadhafi’s death as a triumph for American foreign policy. The administration’s tactical successes speak for themselves — President Obama would be remiss if his campaign strategists weren’t currently splicing an “America’s most wanted” reel of all the terrorists who have been taken out during his tour as Commander in Chief. Indeed, the United States seems to have turned a corner in the “war on terror” with successful drone strikes against al-Qaida operatives in Yemen and the Pakistani tribal lands. But successes aside, this president seems to be missing the bigger strategic picture in all of its many dimensions.
Democracy will only work in the Middle East if it is directed toward humanitarian ends. The people of Egypt and Libya watched for decades as their autocratic leaders not only violated basic human rights, but also deferred to Israel. They want retribution. The storming of the Israeli Embassy in Cairo last month is a testament to how democracy can quickly become a conduit to violence.
President Obama should use the democratic stature of the United States to bring democratic nations together. As new regimes take form in Egypt and Libya, the U.S. should act as an informal arbiter to resuscitate a dialogue with Israel — which ideally will no longer be the only democracy in the Middle East after Egypt’s elections in 2013. At the same time, there would be no greater setback than watching passively on the sidelines as the Arab Spring gives way to military dictatorship. U.S. aid may not always take the form of military intervention, but we nevertheless maintain a responsibility to the nations we aid.
As Europe has teetered on the brink of a devastating currency crisis, national animosities have rekindled. Should the E.U. collapse, Europe will undergo a political crisis of conscience on par with the Arab Spring. The United States cannot sit idly in the event that, even a decade or two from now, Europe finds itself becoming Yugoslavia writ large. The United States must carry in tow a reserve of economic aid and prepare to assist European nations in shaping a better and more sustainable federation of nations.
Finally, and perhaps most stunningly, it appears as if President Obama has continued the heralded tradition of his Democratic predecessors in directing no real foreign policy in Asia. In “On China,” Henry Kissinger proposed the idea of a new “Pacific League” to engage the nations of Southeast Asia and China in a common dialogue with the United States. Such an alliance, Kissinger argues, would provide an opportunity for economic progress and be vital were conflict to erupt in the region. Why has such a program gained zero traction in the Obama Administration? Why does the United States remain passive as new balance of power conundrums erupt in Southeast and Central Asia?
An American-led world order might inspire animosity from those who don’t believe in the exceptionalist mandate of the United States. But would we really prefer any alternative international order? While the death of Moammar Gadhafi represents a tactical victory, President Obama’s continued refusal to confront the revolutionary developments in the 21st century international system represents a grand strategic failure that, left unchecked, will sour our diplomatic relations throughout the world.
Conor crawford is a senior in Calhoun College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .