Monthly Archives: April 2011

Avoiding the catastrophes: In defense of Obama’s limited engagement in Libya

US President Barack Obama is being attacked from every possible direction over his policy of limited military engagement in Libya.

Because Muammar Qaddafi’s regime in Tripoli has not yet been overthrown and Libya appears to be stuck in a stalemated civil war, the cry of “fiasco” is unfairly ringing across the political spectrum.

Opponents of the no-fly zone say the policy has failed because it was a muted instance of imperial hubris: the US butting in where it isn’t needed or wanted. Many who supported it now say Qaddafi’s survival demonstrates that the policy was under, rather than over, ambitious.

Some want all action to stop. Others are nudging the West toward an ill-advised ground invasion.

These critics almost always ignore Obama’s stated goals for the intervention in Libya. He laid out a set of criteria for military engagement when American security isn’t directly threatened: a confluence of “values” with “interests.” Addressing a skeptical public, Obama stressed “values”: The prevention of a probable massacre in Benghazi and saving lives by attacking government heavy weaponry.

But he was also clear that the US had an “interest” in preventing Qaddafi from achieving a clear-cut victory by overrunning Benghazi and consolidating his power.

Critics of Obama’s limited engagement policy either suggest it was intended to lead to the rapid overthrow of Qaddafi, or that the US doesn’t know what it’s doing and essentially has no coherent policy.

Both are wrong.

Obama and his advisers are undoubtedly aware that air power alone has never resolved any conflict, and it is unlikely that they had any abiding faith in the ability of rebels to transform the air intervention into a rapid victory. Obama never spoke in those terms, and there’s no indication he was thinking in them either. The limited aim of the no-fly zone is not to produce, in short order or definitively, Qaddafi’s defeat and ouster, since air power obviously cannot do that. Its narrow goal is rather to prevent a Qaddafi victory.

As for saving lives, what might have happened in Benghazi without the no-fly zone intervention is speculation, but there’s every reason to think that many more people would have been killed in Libya without it, based on Qaddafi’s own words and deeds. Denying him a significant percentage of his heavy weaponry and eroding it further on a daily basis has undoubtedly blunted his ability to kill people, as he frankly boasted, “house by house.”

The no-fly zone hasn’t saved every life, and Obama never said it would.

But it’s hard to argue it hasn’t saved many. It might be possible to claim that by preventing a decisive Qaddafi victory a few weeks ago, the no-fly zone helped produce a stalemated civil war that could drag on, thereby leading to many otherwise avoidable deaths. That’s plausible, but anyone saying so would have to acknowledge up front that they are advocating allowing Qaddafi to fully retake control of his country, have his way with his rebellious cities and provinces, and reemerge as a menace to the region and possibly the world.

Those who argue for a ground intervention are basically advocating that Obama turn Libya into his own Iraq. They should remember Colin Powell’s “Pottery Barn rule,” which invasion, but not a no-fly zone, engages: “If you break it, you own it.” Among other things, it would deprive Libyans of the ability to shape their own future independently and require the West to play a much larger role in developing it than anyone should be comfortable with. Every indication suggests large majorities of both Libyans and Americans do not want any such engagement. It is unnecessary and would be extremely unwise.

That said, supporters of Obama’s limited engagement policy in Libya must acknowledge that it might mean living with, or even enabling, a protracted civil war, a stalemate and possibly a temporary but prolonged de facto division of Libya.

At first glance, that seems a hard position to defend. But it can only be contrasted with the alternatives of having done nothing or an all-out invasion. For all its flaws, the limited policy avoids the likely disasters, or at least major problems, emerging from both of those approaches.

More should be done, and there are ongoing efforts to arm, train and otherwise assist the rebels, including $25 million in US “nonlethal aid” (in wartime, an illusory concept). Such steps are consistent with the logic of Obama’s limited engagement.

The policy avoids two obviously unacceptable scenarios – Qaddafi victory or Western invasion – in favor of one that isn’t pretty but is preferable to the really-existing alternatives.

That’s not a hallmark of a failed or incoherent policy, but a realistic and mature one. Any approach that prudently avoids disasters, and embraces the bad in preference to the worse, when no better options are evident, deserves support.

Iran and the Arab Spring

As anti-government protests are sweeping the Arab world, it’s easy to forget that less than two years ago Arabs looked on in amazement as the people of Iran took to the streets to demand their rights.

Following an obviously rigged election in the summer of 2009, the Iranian “Green Movement” – which united conservatives, and even Islamists, disenchanted with the regime with opposition groups of various kinds – formed as a nonviolent civil rights movement. Many Arab commentators, myself included, wrote about why this apparently could happen in Iran but not in Arab states, and asked what it would take for Arabs to emulate the Iranian example.

Iran’s Green Movement has been successfully repressed, while the momentum of popular struggle for political freedoms unexpectedly shifted to the Arab world at the end of last year. And while the Iranian movement appears dormant, at least for now, patience is the watchword of opponents of the regime.

I recently took part in a panel in Washington DC on a new book, The People Reloaded: The Green Movement and the Struggle for Iran’s Future, an important collection of contemporaneous responses and interventions to four different stages in Iran’s Green Movement, edited by Nader Hashemi and Danny Postel. Joining me were BBC World Service reporter Mohammad Ayatollahi Tabaar and Trita Parsi of the National Iranian American Council.

The most interesting part of the conversation, for me at least, was our discussion about the relationship between the Arab uprisings and both Iranian foreign policy and the future of the Green Movement.

Parsi offered a fairly subtle analysis that focused on the rise of Turkish influence in the Middle East as a rival, but not an outright enemy, of Iran. He suggested that a combination of competition and cooperation between those two states could offer a degree of stability in the region, especially since, he argued, they had a history of managing disputes by containing them and avoiding outright confrontation.

Parsi also suggested that not only might the rule of hard-liners in the Iranian government be undermined by democratization in the Arab world, it could also be weakened by an application of Turkish “soft power” in the region. Here he saw powerful implications of ongoing events in the Middle East for the Green Movement over the long run, and potential opportunities to push reform in Tehran.

Tabaar emphasized the patience of the Green Movement and the commitment of almost all of its factions not to push the country into chaos or uncontrolled revolutionary change. He also noted that, partly because of the fallout from the Green Movement, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was becoming increasingly isolated from the ruling faction and shifting his positions in an effort to avoid marginalization.

Both Parsi and Tabaar agreed that the Iranian ruling faction views the Arab uprisings as part of an “Islamic awakening” and expects to benefit greatly from changes in the Arab world. I suggested there were many reasons to doubt this.

Islamist ideology has not informed most of the Arab uprisings so far.

While Sunni Arab Islamists might benefit from opened political space and elections in countries like Egypt, they might well not come to power. If they do, they might be politically or constitutionally constrained in their use of it. Even if they are unimpeded, they might nonetheless not be particularly friendly toward Tehran because of sectarian suspicions or national interests. The idea that Islamists will cooperate across ideological and national divisions no matter what isn’t any more realistic than the early 20th century fantasy that all Communist states would pursue harmonious foreign policies.

Moreover, the latest wave of the “Arab Spring” is rapidly threatening the stability of the government of Iran’s closest and most important Arab ally, Syria. Everything is in play in the Arab world. All groups in power, and all assets every party believes it possesses, are potentially at risk because most of this change is uncontrolled and undirected. Even Iran’s most obvious new opportunity for advancing its interests in the Arab world – Bahrain – has yet to deliver much to Tehran other than the embarrassment of invoking the rights of Bahraini protesters with memories of the violent crushing of the Green Movement so fresh.

The fact is that in spite of Arab unrest and the optimism of the Iranian ruling faction, they have not yet accrued a single tangible, strategic or stable benefit from these uprisings. The entire panel agreed that, whatever the fantasies or expectations of the Iranian regime, the “Arab Spring” offers at least as many challenges to their agenda as it does opportunities. And, in the long run, it may well help breathe new life into the dormant Green Movement. The demand for reform, which spread from Iran to the Arab world, may soon enough swing back in the direction of Tehran.

Is Bahrain Creating a New Terrorist Threat?

On April 4, the Saudi cabinet issued a statement claiming that “peace and stability” had returned to Bahrain “as a result of the wisdom of its leadership in dealing with its internal matters and because of its people giving priority to national interests.” Nearly three weeks earlier, the Saudi-dominated Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) had sent some 1,200 troops across the 16-mile causeway linking the two countries. Their official mission was to secure key government facilities from the thousands of protesters who had taken to the streets since Feb. 17. Unofficially, they were there to send a chilling, unequivocal message: Game over.

Since then, the government of Bahrain has instituted a total crackdown, beating teenagers in the streets, clamping down on press freedoms, and hauling online activists in for questioning. The daily demonstrations, overwhelmingly by Shiite protesters demanding equal political and civil rights, have indeed stopped. Yet, far from ensuring “peace and stability” in Bahrain, by apparently eliminating all other political options, the ruling Al Khalifa family has established the conditions for a potential outbreak of urban terrorism by Shiite extremists. Long-standing Gulf Sunni fears of a sectarian rebellion in Bahrain and the possibility of major Iranian interference in the island nation have informed an extreme overreaction that is developing all the signs of becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. This can’t end well.

It’s virtually impossible to overstate the totality of the closure of political space in Bahrain. It didn’t have to be this way. Initially, protests were not entirely sectarian and seemed amenable to reforms toward a constitutional monarchy. Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa attempted to initiate a productive dialogue, but the opposition was not forthcoming and hard-liners within the regime centered on his uncle, Prime Minister Khalifa bin Salman Al Khalifa, clearly won out. The more the regime responded to peaceful political demands with violence, the more both government and opposition extremists gained the upper hand.

Shortly after the GCC troops intervened, Shiite opposition figures from the mainstream al-Wefaq organization were arrested, along with more extreme sectarians such as Hassan Mushaima of its rival, al-Haq. (Mushaima has been categorical about the need for a full-blown revolution, saying, “The dictator fell in Tunisia, the dictator fell in Egypt, and the dictator should fall here.”) On March 8, al-Haq and two other groups crossed a red line by announcing the formation of a “Coalition for a Bahraini Republic” — a move that was understood, correctly or not, by Sunnis throughout the region as a commitment not only to the removal of the royal family but also the establishment of an Iranian-style Shiite “Islamic Republic.” Between such provocative opposition statements and the GCC intervention, the crisis in Bahrain became irrevocably polarized along sectarian lines, with Sunnis and Shiites throughout the region taking sides with the government or the opposition based on religious identity.

The political crackdown is so complete it has extended to the nonsectarian and social democratic reformist organization al-Waad, whose moderate leader Ibrahim Sharif was also rounded up. In recent days, al-Waad has joined other groups in warning against Iranian interference in Bahrain, but the government’s response has been to arrest another of its leaders, Abdulhamid Al Murad, and shut down its website and its two main offices.

Without question, however, the crackdown has largely focused on the Shiite opposition and community in general. The government and its allies have framed the protest movement as an Iranian plot, though to date there is scant evidence to demonstrate this. Opposition newspapers have been shut, though Al Wasat was reopened “under new management” after its main editors resigned, and journalists from that paper and others have been hounded and questioned by the authorities. Opposition leaders, both moderate and extreme, are in prison. Medical services have been targeted, injured patients rounded up in hospitals and often denied medical care, and doctors arrested. The Pearl Monument — the focal point of the protests and the main landmark of the capital Manama — has been demolished. A draconian emergency law was put in place that bans all protests, allows for arbitrary arrests, and imposes martial law for at least three months. At least 400 people have been arrested and at least 25 killed during the protests, as well as four deaths in custody that bear all the hallmarks of torture according to Human Rights Watch and other NGOs. A wide-scale crackdownon various economic sectors, including public employees and professional organizations, is under way, including mass firings, especially of Shiites. The big picture is extremely clear: There is no room for dissent of any kind in Bahrain anymore, above all if it comes from the Shiite majority.

Saudi Arabia and the rest of the GCC may be genuinely deluding themselves that “peace and stability” have actually been restored by this violent despotism and the fact that until now only one side — the government and its allies — has been using arms. But historical experience suggests that in any society this extent of repression, especially when directed against a disenfranchised majority with legitimate and historical grievances, is simply untenable, as evinced by examples as disparate as South Africa, Northern Ireland, and the Basque Country. If there is no space for nonsectarian reformists like al-Waad, moderate sectarian Shiite groups like al-Wefaq, or more militant but nonviolent ones like al-Haq, and no tolerance for dissent of any kind, how long can it be before a group of extremists, no matter how small, decides that “fire must be met with fire” and turns to violent resistance? (The crown prince continues to call for dialogue, but the basis for it seems completely absent. In the same breath he calls for reforms but vows “no leniency with anyone who seeks to split our society into two halves.” The government’s most recent move is to seek to legally dissolve al-Wefaq and another Shiite group, Islamic Action. So prospects for meaningful reform and dialogue therefore seem remote at best.)

A campaign of violence by opposition extremists might seek and receive support from Iran or other regional Shiite powers such as the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah. But it would not require it. Iran and Hezbollah might, for their own reasons, strongly urge any Bahraini Shiites considering such action to restrain themselves. But would all of them heed such a call? Modern urban terrorism only requires a tiny handful of people with rudimentary knowledge, armed with a combination of readily available household items and both deep ruthlessness and extreme recklessness, to begin the process.

Such a movement need not initially be particularly ambitious in its destructive acts to have a powerful impact. A handful of people with crude devices acting around the same time in strategic locations is capable of stoking extreme panic. The goal of a modest opening salvo of urban terrorism is typically to provoke an overreaction on the part of the authorities, and in this case that seems virtually guaranteed. The calculus would then be that the overreaction would seem to justify these violent acts in the eyes of many people who otherwise might have been disapproving, allowing the movement to gain strength and develop over time to the point that it becomes a real threat to national security and political stability. The Bahraini government and its allies have already succeeded in turning what should have been a manageable political situation into an unmanageable one. How likely is it that they would react in a more rational and prudent manner to a violent security threat, however limited and symbolic?

The total crackdown in Bahrain has plainly opened the door for just such a scenario. If this situation continues for an extended period of time, it is probably more a matter of when rather than if some group eventually walks through that door. Largely because of their own actions, all the worst fears of Bahrain’s royal family and the Sunnis of both the island and the rest of the Gulf are perfectly positioned to begin to come true, and the opportunity to avoid this is dwindling by the day.

Arabs yearn to move on and enjoy genuine peace

Probably the most important clause in the Arab Peace Initiative, first adopted by the Arab League at the Beirut summit in 2002 and reaffirmed on several occasions including in 2007, is its commitment to “establish normal relations with Israel in the context of [a] comprehensive peace.”

This clause represented the culmination of decades of evolution of Arab thinking regarding relations with Israel, and the final repudiation of the Khartoum resolution of 1967, which insisted the Arabs would allow “no peace with Israel, no recognition of Israel, no negotiations with it.”

In other words, rather than being surrounded by an Arab world that generally, if not unanimously, rejected the idea of accepting Israel as a permanent and legitimate presence in the Middle East, for almost a decade now Israel has been facing a united Arab world that has repeatedly made clear its willingness to make a permanent and normalized peace with the Jewish state.

The importance of this clause is that it affirms that at the end of negotiations with the Palestinians, Israel can expect recognition and acceptance in the region, not just from the Palestinians but from the other Arab states as well.

Its endorsement by the Organization of the Islamic Conference suggests an even broader reconciliation with the larger Muslim world as well. In effect, this clause in the initiative presents Israel with a simple choice: It can continue the occupation and the illegal colonization of territories occupied in 1967, or it can agree to end the occupation and permit the establishment of a Palestinian state, and acquire the peace and regional acceptance that have supposedly been its primary foreign policy goals since 1948.

For the Palestinians, this clause is an extremely important diplomatic tool in pushing for an end to the occupation, since they can point out to Israelis that the result of successful negotiations will be peace and reconciliation not only with them, but with the Arab world in general.

There have been some halfhearted efforts by the Palestinian leadership to promote the initiative, but limited resources and a marked disinterest on the part of Israelis have attenuated these efforts.

Israeli disinterest in the initiative has been truly extraordinary. It would seem to offer them everything they have said they wanted since the establishment of their state, yet very few leaders or opinion makers have recognized its importance, and no Israeli government has ever attempted to test the seriousness of its proposal.

Some Israelis are so committed to maintaining the occupation that they are uninterested in any such compromise. Others suspect it is a diplomatic ruse, but by not testing it in any serious manner this becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Of course, the Arab League could and should do more to promote the Arab Peace Initiative, especially with the Israeli public.

Other Israelis are unenthusiastic because they regard peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan as strategically essential but fundamentally unsatisfactory. Israeli bitterness about the “cold peace” with those two countries shows a failure to comprehend that the enduring coldness is the consequence of the continuation of the occupation in Palestine.

Obviously, Arabs and Israelis, given their bitter history, are unlikely to become close allies even if the conflict is permanently and irrevocably ended. However, Israelis need to understand that the “cold” nature of the treaties with Egypt and Jordan stems from popular outrage about the continued occupation in Palestine.

If that were resolved, as the Arab initiative anticipates, the potential for Arab-Israel reconciliation at the cultural and emotional level, which is otherwise impossible, will likely develop over time. Warmth is too much to ask at first, but without occupation, both peace and reconciliation become achievable.

The Palestinian citizens of Israel are likely to play a crucial role in such a reconciliation. The end of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would do more than anything imaginable to normalize their status as Israeli citizens, and they are perfectly positioned to become Israel’s economic and cultural ambassadors to the Arab world.

It could transform them from a beleaguered, discriminated-against minority to a crucially positioned and empowered group that can broker economic and cultural exchanges that are mutually beneficial and form the basis for a broader reconciliation.

It’s become quite obvious that while almost all Arabs are still passionate about the plight of the Palestinians and committed to ending the occupation that began in 1967, most Arab states yearn to move past the pointless and exhausting conflict with Israel that began in 1948.

All parties stand to gain from the normalization of relations between Israel and the Arab world, but, as the Arab initiative makes very clear, that can only happen if the occupation is ended and a Palestinian state is established to live alongside Israel in peace and security.

Ibish joins roundtable on The War in Libya and the “Arab Spring”

Why has there been such a flowering of revolt in the Arab world in North Africa and the Middle East in the past few months? Is there a common root cause to protests and revolts, whether ultimately successful in creating less-oppressive regimes, in Libya, Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Syria, Saudi Arabia, and elsewhere?

These uprisings have been brewing in the Arab world for many decades. Almost everyone who carefully observed the region knew that this was going to happen at some point, but nobody knew how or when it would begin. Some narratives attribute the origins to the self-immolation of an underemployed Tunisian fruit seller who was being harassed by the authorities, or the beating death of an ordinary Egyptian in Alexandria at the hands of the police, both of whom became emblems of abuses by autocratic, unaccountable governments and their oppressive internal security forces. Other narratives emphasize social media such as Twitter and Facebook. Honestly, I think the causes for the uprisings are overdetermined and cannot be put down to either specific events or technological developments. For causes that may be analyzable many years from now with hindsight, there was clearly a critical mass that built at the very end of 2010 and has carried through this year with a vengeance.

Of course there are common root causes to most of these revolts: a demand for accountability from leadership; more social and political inclusivity; less corruption and nepotism and arbitrary misadministration by dysfunctional bureaucracies; extreme and growing social and economic inequality; the lack of political freedom; and an overall feeling that the Arab world is stagnating as the rest of the globe marches forward beyond modernity and even postmodernity towards a new and exciting era. I think many Arabs feel they are being left behind, not because they lack the skills or education, but because the governmental, social, and economic systems they lived under prevent them from participating in these global developments. The sense of being treated as a subject rather than a citizen by an unaccountable government, almost always corrupt and very frequently kleptocratic in nature, the lack of any serious space for political and social input through civil society or fundamental democratic processes; and the chronic underemployment of well-educated youth meant that there are a set of grievances that cut right across Arab states that have very different individual characteristics. Of course each society differs in many ways, and there are at least three Gulf states—Qatar, the UAE, and Kuwait—that have so much money and such small populations that they are probably immune to major unrest.

What’s most fascinating about the Arab uprisings is that they have not been ideologically Islamist in character, although the Islamists are clearly hoping to benefit from early elections and the opening of political space. It wasn’t religious identity at all that brought millions of Arabs into the streets demanding their rights and the overthrow of long-standing dictators. It was instead qualities that had been considered moribund if not dead in the Arab world by many observers, both Western and Arab: patriotism, national consciousness, and a sense of fellow feeling based on national and ethnic identity. The “Arab Spring” has produced a fascinating resurgence of a kind of Arab nationalism, or at least Arab ethnic consciousness as opposed to Muslim religious identity consciousness, but it’s very different than the Arab nationalism of the past that quixotically sought to unite disparate Arab states. Instead, the Arab movements are inspiring each other, such that in Tunisia Islamic slogans were ejected in favor of patriotic ones, and the Tunisian flag predominated. In Egypt, the same thing happened, with Muslims and Christians, the devout and the skeptical, the upper middle class and the working poor, all uniting as Egyptians, waving Egyptian flags and symbols, but also Tunisian ones. In Libya and Yemen, national flags have been important but Tunisian and Egyptian flags have also been very present. In other words, people are proud to be Arabs again: They are proud of themselves, and they are proud of each other. They’re sick of being subjects to lifelong dictators and their sons, and resentful of monarchies that resist constitutionalism and parliamentary reform.

So clearly there are root causes that are common, and rather vague, often nonideological, goals that are common as well. But of course there are differences too. Because of their sectarian and ethnic heterogeneity, Iraq and Lebanon have their own dynamics and probably won’t be part of this wave of uprisings, even though a very interesting, but somewhat unrelated, movement is beginning in Lebanon. Bahrain has become almost entirely a sectarian conflict, which might have been avoidable, but due to the gross miscalculations of the government and their Gulf allies, especially Saudi Arabia, and their paranoia about Iranian intentions towards the island kingdom (Iran has a full territorial claim on Bahrain that it has never formally renounced), it has already become virtually a proxy conflict between all the Sunni Arabs of the Gulf and the Shiites of the region, unfortunately led by Iran. In both Libya and Yemen, there is the threat of national disintegration and, potentially, failed-state status. So in all cases, there are unique challenges. But, as I say, there are many common grievances and ambitions that Arabs throughout the region clearly share and that are motivating the “Arab Spring.”

Is the impulse to challenge repressive regimes likely to spread to other countries in the region and, if so, which ones?

As I say, I think there are only three Arab states that are almost certainly immune to revolutionary uprisings: Qatar, the UAE, and Kuwait. All three have small indigenous populations, very large amounts of money to keep people happy, no hesitation in using repression against dissidents (so you’ve got lots and lots of carrots but a few sharp sticks too), and huge numbers of migrant workers from the West, the Arab world, and other developing states who do not have a long-term stake in the future of those societies and are unlikely to risk all for social reform in places they live in only to make money. It’s true that there are Shiite minorities in the UAE and, especially, Kuwait that can prove difficult at times, and are certainly making a fuss about the intervention in Bahrain, but this is almost certainly manageable. Kuwait also has an ongoing problem of undocumented Bedouins who have been protesting for their rights for many decades. But again, this isn’t really part of the generalized Arab uprising and has a fairly easy solution: Normalize their status. Bahrain is a unique case also because it has a strong Shiite majority and an uprising that has become almost entirely sectarian. It’s seen as a flashpoint and redline for the other Sunni-ruled Gulf Cooperation Council members, especially Saudi Arabia, and as a proxy battlefield with Iran.

But other than the three small and hyper-rich Gulf states I mentioned above, I think all Arab countries are potentially liable to see popular unrest and antigovernment demonstrations. Sudan is still shell-shocked from the loss of the South, but it could spread there too. There are signs in Mauritania. It’s already well underway in Yemen, Libya, Jordan, Bahrain, Syria, and elsewhere. Saudi Arabia too is very brittle, with a large and oppressed and disenfranchised Shiite minority in the oil-rich eastern provinces, dormant but potentially resurgent tension between Nejdi and Hijazi identity, large numbers of poor and neglected people in rural provinces, and it’s also very susceptible to negative influences coming from a disintegrating Yemen and sectarian tensions emanating out of Bahrain. In some countries popular monarchs such as the kings of Jordan and Morocco, and some Gulf states as well, might be able to draw a distinction between themselves on the one hand and the governments on the other hand and proceed with reform on that basis.

This is even possible in Syria where Bashar al-Assad has somehow managed to create a very different reputation for himself personally to the deeply unpopular regime that he heads. How long that can be sustained or what he can do with it is very much open to question, and he already missed his first big opportunity in his recent speech in which he did not lift the draconian emergency law (presumably because either the inner circle around him wouldn’t let him do that, or he and all the others fear that it would open the floodgates to a generalized uprising). Syria is especially complicated because it is ruled largely by an Alawite sectarian minority and the potential for bloody vengeance against that community in the case of the fall of the regime is a serious concern. In addition, Syrians have had a very good look at what happened in Iraq (there are huge numbers of Iraqi refugees in Syria at the moment) and would not want to go through a similar period of social disintegration, and the Syrian government has a good deal of experience managing difficult political waters through its hegemonic efforts in Lebanon. So in my view while Syria is certainly vulnerable to the same kind of uprisings we’ve seen elsewhere, and that have begun in that country already, it may well be one of the last dominoes to fall for these reasons, and also because I don’t doubt the willingness of the Syrian army to use massive force at an early stage.

The outcome of all of this is most likely to be shaped by what happens in Egypt, which always has been and remains the bellwether for most of the Arab world. If the Egyptians can succeed in creating an inchoate and fledgling but pluralistic, inclusive democratic system that also protects minority rights, then we probably are seeing the beginnings of an Arab Spring comparable to the democratic transformations in Latin America and Eastern Europe in recent decades.

What should the role of the United States in the region be as events unfold?

I think the United States has to be extremely careful in how it deals with the situation. First of all, it has to seize every opportunity to make it clear to the Arab peoples that we are not the guarantors of an unacceptable status quo—that we are not so addicted to oil supplies, regional stability, our own hegemony, and Israel’s security that we would regard any dramatic or revolutionary change in the Arab world as inherently undesirable. I think the Obama administration finally got it right in Tunisia and Egypt, and although they waited too long to participate in creating a no-fly zone in Libya, that action has helped to communicate the right message to the Arab world. If the United States had acted early, in the immediate aftermath of Col. Qaddafi’s first televised speech after the revolt began, in which he claimed the uprising was a joint Al Qaeda-American plot and threatened to cleanse Libya “house by house” among other bloodcurdling threats, an intervention would have been seen by almost everyone in the Arab world except for the most extreme left-nationalists and radical Islamists as a genuine rescue operation unconnected to self-serving American interests. The fact that we waited several weeks before joining a large coalition probably helped diplomatically in terms of securing Arab League support, a rock-solid UN Security Council resolution, a wide coalition including significant air power from Qatar and the UAE, and other important diplomatic achievements, but I think it also cost a great deal politically and strategically in terms of how this intervention plays out in Libya itself and, even more importantly, is viewed by the majority of Arab public opinion. I think now it looks much more like what it has become, an intervention in a civil war, and it looks much more calculated, self-serving, and reluctant, and hence is much more vulnerable to the specious charge of imperialism and neocolonialism.

I like the way President Obama in his speech on the Libyan intervention framed his criteria (he did not lay out a fatuous “doctrine” as other less sophisticated presidents have tried to do) for international action. He said that when our security is directly threatened, we will act without hesitation, but that even when it is not directly threatened, if there is a convergence between our interests and our values, then we will act. Libya is a perfect case in point, as there was every reason to suspect that as the Qaddafi forces were bearing down on the rebel stronghold of Benghazi, a major massacre was a distinct possibility based entirely on his own rhetoric and threats, not to mention his conduct. This is where it becomes a matter of values. But at the same time, the United States, the international community, and the Arab world had to consider the prospect of a decisive victory by a bloodied, enraged, embittered and still oil-rich Qaddafi stalking the region and the world with a new revenge agenda that undoubtedly goes far beyond Libya and probably beyond the Middle East. In other words, from the point of view of our interests, that outcome was unacceptable. Hence there was a perfect confluence between our values and our interests, and Obama was absolutely right to act, although I wish he had done so earlier when it would have had a much more profound political and cultural impact in the Arab world, and also probably enhanced our ability to shape the outcome of what is ultimately going to be decided by Libyans with some external support.

Obviously there are other instances where our values and interests don’t intersect in the same way. Bahrain is a good example, although the violence inflicted there pales in comparison to what Qaddafi was doing in Libya. However, the overthrow of the royal family in Manama is not acceptable to the United States or its GCC allies because the Fifth Fleet is based there and it is therefore a vital military ally, because of its strategic location, and because of Iran’s thinly disguised designs on the island. Therefore, intervention in Bahrain will be left to the GCC based on the treaty obligations that allow for the kind of intervention those countries have already undertaken. If it were simply a matter of values, we would have already been intervening in Côte d’Ivoire and Congo. If it were simply a matter of interests, we would have supported the crackdown in Bahrain and not criticized the GCC intervention. There is a delicate interplay at work here between values and interests, understanding that when American security is directly threatened, all bets are off.

But I think that rather than establishing any kind of fatuous “doctrine,” what Obama has done is lay out a series of criteria that can help guide when intervention is useful and when it isn’t. I’ve been a supporter of the no-fly zone almost from the earliest stage, and I strongly agree with the case he made for that intervention, although he put much more emphasis on the humanitarian aspects (intelligently appealing to people’s consciences and emotions) and less emphasis on a Qaddafi victory as a politically unacceptable outcome. And he did explain the need to get on the right side of history in terms of the aspirations of the “Arab Spring” when we can do so without compromising our core interests, as we could in this case. It’s really impossible to argue, as some on the far left are desperately trying to do, that this is a neocolonial or imperial intervention designed to split Libya into pieces so that it will be easier to control, and seize the oil wealth of that country. This is absurd! The West had no problem dealing with Qaddafi until the uprising began and he was happily selling all his oil at very reasonable prices to the global marketplace. In fact, both the uprising and the no-fly zone intervention, which has prolonged the war by preventing what seemed as if it might have been an imminent and decisive Qaddafi victory, have driven the price of oil up even further, directly harming the U.S. economy and the economies of most of our allies as well. I’m not saying we are acting altruistically. States don’t do that. But I’m saying that the real calculus bears no resemblance to the faux-Marxist, pseudo-materialist gobbledygook you get out of the knee-jerk, tin can “antiwar” left. The professor and blogger Juan Cole has offered one of the most powerful rebuttals to this nonsense and I urge everyone to read his “open letter to the left.”

When it comes to our allies, obviously we need to push for serious reforms that can answer the legitimate grievances of the Arab peoples before chaos ensues in countries in which we have a major stake. And I think if the Egyptian transition proves effective in moving towards real democracy, that will set the stage for the process to spread in a more orderly, serious manner through much of the Arab world, with the exception of the Gulf, Lebanon, and Iraq, which will require their own solutions because they really are very different in many ways. What I’ve been arguing recently is that most Arabs, including most Islamists, have understood that government legitimacy must be based on elections and the consent of the governed through voting. That debate, it seems to me, is resolved in Arab political culture with the exception of a few ruling and royal families and the most extreme Islamists like Al Qaeda who find voting “un-Islamic.” What I think we ought to focus on, as well as urging orderly reforms and transitions based on the principles of accountability, inclusivity, rule of law, and pluralism, is the flipside of democracy: the limitations of government power. To put it in American terms, I think the Arabs get Jefferson: Government legitimacy depends on the consent of the governed. But I think too few Arabs really get Madison: that democracy depends on a healthy balance between the right of the majority to rule within limits set by the inviolable rights of minorities, individual citizens, and women. In other words, one of the great dangers facing the “Arab Spring,” assuming it really does move in the direction of functional parliamentary democracies, is the emergence of tyrannous majorities, whether Islamist or otherwise.

It’s important for the United States to back off and let the Arabs work things out for themselves with as little interference as possible, but at the same time we really should press our allies to begin the reform process in earnest in order to forestall chaos and civil conflict. More broadly, I think government agencies, and even more importantly nongovernmental organizations, especially those that are already engaged in Middle East research and policy work, Arab-American and Muslim organizations, think tanks, and other such bodies should begin to focus very heavily on the other side of the democratic coin: the limitations of government and majority powers. Arabs need a solid dose of Madisonian insights to balance their present infatuation with Jeffersonian ideals if they are to create well-functioning democracies that allow for majority rule, even by popularly, freely, and fairly elected Islamists (assuming they are peaceful, unarmed, and playing within the rules), that do not threaten the rights of individuals, minorities, and women.

This means empowering the moderates in the Arab world who understand this, and helping to create new orders in which the obviously totalitarian impulses of Islamist parties are restrained by constitutions that do not allow them to act on such impulses even if they become serious political players through elections. It means engaging heavily with practitioners on the ground who have been working towards Arab reform before the uprising in Tunisia suddenly erupted. It means spending money to help ensure that this process goes in that direction rather than the three great pitfalls facing the “Arab Spring”: the rise of new military dictatorships, as could happen in Tunisia and Egypt, that are currently undergoing “transitional periods” under military leadership; the emergence of fragmented or failed states as may be developing in Libya, Yemen, and elsewhere; and the potential rise of tyrannous majorities in unrestrained parliamentary democracies which lack sufficient protections for the rights of individuals, minorities, and women. I think this is an area the United States as a society, and not just the government but even more civil society organizations and NGOs, can be of enormous help. And I think we should start working on that right away, as closely as possible with the practitioners on the ground in all of these societies who understand this and are trying to both explain it to the general public and to the elite, and work towards creating systems that reflect these understandings.

How long before a campaign of urban terrorism is launched in Bahrain?

I can't believe I have to ask this question, but everyone is skirting around it and somebody has to point out the obvious: between the increasingly hardline demands of some of the more extreme opposition groups and, above all, the campaign of political repression launched by the government of Bahrain and its Gulf Cooperation Council allies, what began as a manageable political situation is at the brink of no return. This has become obvious over the past week in particular, and it had been my intention to begin a grim posting of this nature with a timeline and summary of how the situation has deteriorated to the point where the question I posed in my title has become unavoidable. But the outstanding Marina Ottaway of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace has written a flawless, pitch-perfect summary and analysis of these developments, published on Carnegie's website on April 4, and there is no point my retracing it in such detail. I recommend reading her acute diagnosis not only for its precise factual content but also as a textbook example of how to perform a timeline/summary of the development of a crisis, interspersed with wise and insightful analysis. For me, this is political writing at its very finest, and the narrative she outlines with such precision forms the essential background of my deep concern about where things are going in Bahrain.

The bottom line is that under Saudi Arabian and other GCC “guidance” and influence, the government and royal family of Bahrain has responded to the protest and reform movement with a program of total political repression. This was completely avoidable, as initially the protest movement was not strictly sectarian nor initially aimed at removing the royal family or completely overhauling the political system in the country. There's no doubt that the government's violent response, starting on February 17, to what had been peaceful protests at the Pearl Roundabout began the pattern of overreaction between extremists on both sides that has utterly foreclosed the obvious solution of a partial opening up of political space and the beginning of a process of moving towards a truly constitutional monarchy. It also began the process of ensuring that the protest movement in Bahrain became increasingly and is now almost entirely sectarian.

There was an initial move away from total repression. The King himself apologized for the first deaths, and his son, Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa made many of the right noises and apparently attempted to initiate a productive dialogue with the opposition. Some opposition groups such as the leading moderate but sectarian Shiite political association al-Wifaq undoubtedly did place some onerous conditions on the opening of a dialogue, and bear their share of the blame for the rapid breakdown of the possibility of a reform dialogue. But in the end whatever influence the Crown Prince and his apparent moderate faction within the regime had, hard-liners centered around his uncle, the Prime Minister Khalifa Bin Salman al-Khalifa, clearly won out. So did extremists among the protesters, most notably the more militant Shiite organization al-Haq, led by Hassan Mushaima, who, along with other Shiite opposition groups, proclaimed the intention of founding a “republic” in place of the Island Kingdom. It was assumed that al-Haq at least, if not the other two organizations in the "Coalition for a Bahraini Republic" which was announced on March 8, had left the word “Islamic” — in the manner of the “Islamic Republic of Iran” — implicit but clearly discernible in their call. Hardliners on both sides by that point had drawn red lines neither could tolerate. The process by which extremists on both sides seized the momentum was neatly summarized in an excellent analysis in The National by Caryle Murphy, also published on April 4.

Violent repression continued, and culminated in the invitation to GCC armed forces to intervene, led by 1,200 Saudi forces that crossed the causeway into Bahrain on March 14. On March 17, Mushaima and four other leading Shiite opposition figures were arrested. So was the social democrat reformist Dr. Ibrahim Sharif of the al-Wa'ad organization, a moderate, non-sectarian group (I spoke at their headquarters in Manama the week before the last US presidential election, and if they are radicals, then there are no moderate opposition figures in Bahrain). Bahraini security forces, GCC troops and un-uniformed armed gangs have instituted what amounts to a reign of terror in Manama, largely focused on the Shiite community. All political space for opposition, particularly Shiite opposition or dissent of any kind, in Bahrain is now completely closed. Opposition newspapers are shut. Leaders, both moderate and extreme, are in prison. Medical services have been targeted, injured patients rounded up in hospitals and often denied medical care, and doctors arrested. The Pearl monument, the focal point of the protests and the main landmark of the city, has been demolished by the government. A draconian emergency law put in place. At least 300 people arrested. 25 people killed. A widescale crackdown on various professional sectors, including public employees, professional organizations and unions is underway. One could go on, but the big picture is extremely clear: there is no political space for dissent of any kind in Bahrain anymore.

The sectarian character of this crisis has become undisguised and unmistakable. This has been driven by the government's attitude, influenced by its GCC allies, which holds that the entire affair is an Iranian plot. It has also been shaped by some of the more hardline protesters who have made clear their attitude that the royal family, which originates from Qatar, and much of the Sunni community, is a foreign presence whose rule, and perhaps even residency, in the island is coming to an end. What should have been a manageable negotiation over the opening of political space and moves to end discrimination and marginalization against the Shiite majority has become an existential struggle. Since the protests began in February, it's been de rigueur to say it's not too late to pull back from the brink, and I've said so many times. In fact, my initial attitude — which was misguidedly based on the logic of the political situation rather than the sectarian hysteria, ideology and total irrationality which has bizarrely won out on both sides of the equation (although it should be noted that the government holds most of the cards and therefore bears most of the blame) — was to describe “the drama in Manama” as a “sideshow” to the broader “Arab Spring.” That's probably still true: what's happening in Bahrain is only tangentially connected to the wider Arab reform process and anti-government protest movements, precisely because it is more a function of a long-standing sectarian conflict between a Sunni ruling minority and a disenfranchised Shiite majority. But we may really be reaching the point of no return.

The facts speak for themselves: there is no political space left at all for dialogue or dissent; the conflict has become entirely sectarian; extremists on both sides have all the momentum; and the situation is totally untenable. Also on April 4 (which has all the hallmarks of a turning point in perceptions), the Saudi cabinet issued a statement touching on many subjects, but claiming that, "Peace and stability returned to Bahrain as a result of the wisdom of its leadership in dealing with its internal matters and because of its people giving priority to national interests.” I don't know how one could possibly tweak this sentence to make it any more incorrect. Even though the crackdown is total, and at this stage weapons are being almost entirely held, or certainly used, by only one side (the Bahraini government, its GCC allies and its armed gangs), the idea that “peace and stability have returned to Bahrain” is utterly delusional. To the contrary, what we have is a classic formula for the emergence of the most dangerous of political phenomena: a campaign of urban terrorism, in this case by extremist Shiites.

In my view the question is probably more one of when and how, rather than if, such a campaign begins, and what its character, scope and effects will be. Just as al-Haq operates to the political and sectarian right of the traditionally larger and more mainstream al-Wifaq organization, are there not now or will there not soon inevitably be those to the right of al-Haq? Is it really conceivable that among a disenfranchised and marginalized majority of between 60-70 percent of a country, however small, facing a situation of total crackdown and violent repression with a complete closing down of all political space, there will not be those who conclude that "fire must be met with fire?" I can't think of a parallel situation in which that hasn't eventually happened.

The United States might have been able to play a moderating role, but was unable to do so (it apparently tried without any success). Ultimately its interests, driven by the hosting of its Fifth Fleet in a huge naval base in Bahrain and concerns about Iranian designs on the island and the Gulf region as a whole, lie with the continuation of the ruling family, especially if the alternative is its overthrow by Shiite Islamists or other opposition movements unfriendly to the United States. Therefore, no matter how much it disapproved of the government's reaction and the GCC intervention, which it publicly criticized, the Obama administration has not been able to prevent the deterioration I've described.

The wildcard here of course is Iran. There are strong cultural, familial and other connections, beyond simply Shiite religious affiliation, between large sections of the Bahraini Shiite community and Iran, and a subsection of it is directly Persian in origin. There isn't any strong evidence of major Iranian involvement in the Bahraini uprising to date, but without doubt the Bahraini royal family and, possibly even more strongly, Saudi Arabia and other GCC countries have seen the entire opposition movement as either directly an Iranian plot or inevitably accruing to the benefit of Tehran. Iran has a long-standing territorial claim on Bahrain, which caused major tensions with Britain and Arab Gulf states in the 50s and 60s, and which has been downplayed but probably not abandoned during the era of the “Islamic Republic.” In all Arab states with large Shiite populations, the influence of Iran is a hotly debated topic. In Lebanon, for example, strong ties between Hezbollah and Iran and its Revolutionary Guards are beyond question, but the degree of independence the organization has from Tehran is not really known and hasn't been tested in many years. The relationship between Iran and Shiite political parties in Iraq has proven extremely complex. Some of those that were very close to, and indeed based in, Iran during the Saddam Hussein era, but have risen to national political prominence since the US invasion, have distanced themselves from Iran as they have had to assume responsibility for governing a country that does not have a Shiite majority and has its own independent culture and national interests. On the other hand, the organization led by Muqtada Sadr, which was originally more nationalistic and skeptical of Iranian intentions, appears to have been strongly drawn into the Iranian orbit, and Sadr himself relocated to Iran, ostensibly for purposes of religious higher education and clerical advancement.

In the 90s, the Bahraini government accused Iran of having established a “Hezbollah Bahrain” to organize a coup against the royal family, but the evidence was scant and, although there was a serious uprising, the real existence of such a plot — let alone a Bahraini version of Hezbollah or a campaign of terrorism by such an organization — remained highly questionable. Bahraini Shiites have launched protests and uprisings, including rioting, on numerous occasions throughout the 20th century, notably in the 1950s and 1990s, but never turned to a campaign of urban terrorism. I'm certainly not arguing that it's inevitable that such a phenomenon will develop now, but I think the strong possibility can only be discounted by people who are not paying attention or thinking critically. By totally closing down all political space in the manner they have, the Bahraini government and its GCC allies, especially Saudi Arabia, have presented a golden opportunity for any extremists within the Bahraini Shiite community inclined to conclude that there is no other way forward.

Assuming there are extremist Bahraini Shiites who are beginning to consider this option seriously, given that all other alternatives appear to be most unwisely and foolishly foreclosed by the government's extraordinary overreaction, the question of Iran's influence and role becomes exceptionally important. If such a group were to approach Tehran with a request for support for this kind of campaign, would the Iranians find it in their strategic interests to help in any way, including indirectly through the Lebanese Hezbollah? Would they give it a wink and nod, but ask not to be involved directly or indirectly? Would they strongly warn against any such move for their own purposes? It's impossible to answer these questions. More importantly, would all Bahraini Shiites considering this extreme option abandon the idea of a campaign of urban sabotage and/or terrorism if strongly discouraged, for whatever reason, by Tehran? The biggest problem with modern urban terrorism is that it only requires a tiny handful of people with rudimentary knowledge, armed with a combination of readily available household items and both deep ruthlessness and extreme recklessness to begin the process.

History suggests that the beginning of such a movement need not be spectacular or particularly ambitious in its destructive acts. A handful of people with Molotov cocktails or other crude devices taking to the streets around the same time on a given evening in strategic locations are capable of stoking extreme panic under such circumstances. The government and its allies have already overreacted to peaceful protests and arrested moderate and extremist opposition figures alike, shutting down all political space. The goal of even a modest opening salvo of urban terrorism or sabotage is typically to provoke an overreaction on the part of the authorities being targeted, and in this case that seems virtually guaranteed. The calculus would then be that the overreaction would seem to justify the sabotage or terrorism in the eyes of many people who otherwise might have been disapproving, allowing the movement to grow, gain strength and develop over time to the point that it becomes a real threat to national security and political stability. In other words, it requires a wise and calm government to defuse a modest outbreak of urban terrorism by small groups of extremists, but an overreaction generally plays precisely into their hands and turns a manageable security situation into an unmanageable one. The Bahraini government and its allies have already succeeded in turning a manageable political situation into an unmanageable one. Why should they be expected to react in a more rational, constructive and prudent manner to a violent security threat, however limited and symbolic?

What I'm suggesting is that all the conditions for a campaign of urban terrorism and sabotage are in place right now in Manama. It may or may not gain the support or even approval of Iran, the Lebanese Hezbollah, or any other outside forces. But that wouldn't necessarily stop it from launching itself in a modest, limited manner. This then has the capacity, and under the present circumstances I fear even the likelihood, of spiraling out of control if there are unwise overreactions by the authorities.

Thankfully at this stage such a scenario is entirely speculative. Indeed, I've rarely engaged in a piece of speculation I more heartily hoped would prove to be misinformed or misguided, or more strongly wished for events to move in a very different direction. It's hard to imagine anything more frightening in the Gulf at this stage, but it's also very easy to imagine it happening. The political opportunity is there. Given an extremist mindset, which some, especially aggrieved, people all over the world have, the logic presents itself ineluctably. It doesn't require external support and wouldn't necessarily acquiesce to external prohibitions. It doesn't require a large group or sophisticated knowledge or equipment either. The door for just such a scenario has been opened wide, and — I'm deeply pained to say — when a political space like this is presented over an extended period of time, eventually somebody usually ends up walking through that door and taking possession of that space.

Obama’s “non-doctrine” explained

US President Barack Obama, explaining his Libya policy last week, resisted the temptation to define a fatuous “doctrine” for international intervention. Instead Obama laid out a set of coherent criteria to justify military action. By avoiding any “Obama doctrine” he also emphasized the flexibility required for deploying what is still unique, but decreasing, American power in a world in dramatic flux.

Obama began by asserting that the president will act without hesitation when the security of the United States is directly threatened, an uncontested axiom of American policy. Obama’s gloss on the deployment of American military power internationally was his focus on the convergence of values and interests. The operative sentence of his speech was: “There will be times, though, when our safety is not directly threatened, but our interests and our values are.” And, he added, “In such cases, we should not be afraid to act.”

Obama’s criteria for considering military action when the security of the United States is not directly threatened involve a fairly subtle interplay between what he presented as “values” and what are agreed to be “interests.” Because he was trying to justify a risky and expensive military operation to an American public generally opposed to intervention in Libya, Obama wisely emphasized the “values” element of the equation. He suggested that as Libyan forces advanced toward the rebel stronghold of Benghazi, he “refused to wait for the images of slaughter and mass graves before taking action.”

The White House reportedly anticipated “another Srebrenica,” recalling the massacre in 1995 of thousands of Bosnian Muslims in eastern Bosnia – as United Nations forces stood by powerlessly. No one could have seriously dismissed that prospect given Moammar al-Qaddafi’s own words and deeds as his forces threatened to recapture Benghazi.

However, the “interests” argument was there too, although downplayed. What Obama was trying to communicate was that for the United States, its Arab allies and the international community, the prospect of Benghazi falling and Qaddafi’s reemergence as a vengeful, bloodied, oil-rich and re-empowered menace stalking the region and the globe was simply an unacceptable outcome. The West and the Arabs might be able to live with a prolonged civil war in Libya, and maybe even a stalemate, but not a decisive Qaddafi victory and its consequences, especially given the Libyan leader’s track record.

So, Obama’s speech didn’t simply answer the question: “Why Libya?” It also answered the equally pointed “Why not Ivory Coast or Congo; why not Bahrain, Yemen or Syria?” Why act here, and not elsewhere?

This notion of the confluence of values and interests explains exactly why. American, and indeed universal, values may be affronted in the Ivory Coast and Congo, but fundamental Americans interests are not at stake. American interests in Bahrain – such as its hosting of the Fifth Fleet and apparent Iranian designs on the island kingdom – won’t allow for the overthrow of the royal family, although transition to a constitutional monarchy is undoubtedly desirable.

The situation in Yemen is so volatile and complex it’s almost impossible to imagine how military intervention would advance American interests there. And as for Syria, although regime change might be welcomed in Washington and many other capitals, highly influential Israeli and Saudi voices have warned strongly against the likely alternatives. There are many other examples in which American interests and values simply aren’t converging as in the Libyan case.

In Libya Obama identified this convergence and decided to act. I’ve argued that the hesitation in what was an inevitable intervention has been politically and strategically costly, but Obama powerfully argued that the United States had to act in concert with other states and with international legitimacy. What I still see as hesitation, he suggested was in fact the development of a broad coalition including NATO and Arab forces, and the passage of UN Security Council and Arab League resolutions authorizing the no-fly zone.

Obama’s conditions suggest that under his leadership the United States is not looking for opportunities to act but will be attuned to situations in which action is unavoidable, and inaction more costly or simply unacceptable. He explained these conditions masterfully and persuasively, but explicitly avoided any kind of formulaic “doctrine” that locks the United States into any future interventions.

Most importantly, Obama explicitly recognized that the Libyan action decisively shows the United States standing with Arabs seeking freedom from dictatorship. After all, if it really were about stability and oil, the most logical thing would’ve been to intervene on the side of Qaddafi, who has imposed ruthless stability and provided cheap petroleum. However, this robust intervention in one corner of the developing “Arab Spring” shows Washington clearly making a choice on behalf of dramatic and revolutionary change.