Libya could very well prove to be the Obama administration's defining moment in the Middle East. Already, military action has prevented the slaughter of thousands in Benghazi and other rebel strongholds in the East. This marks a major success, and one that Arabs have taken note of. But if the United States wants to refashion its relationship with the region, this is only the first step on a longer, more difficult road.
Among Arabs, there is a broad consensus — among both leaders and citizens — backing international intervention to protect the Libyan people. But suspicion of Western motives runs deep. If Libya is a one-off intervention, it will reinforce the perception that the United States acts only when the targets are delusional anti-American autocrats. What about pro-American autocrats? Here, U.S. policymakers are in a bind, torn between the familiar policies of the past and the demands of a rapidly changing region.
According to the "responsibility to protect," the United States and the international community have a mandate to act not just in Libya but also in Yemen and Bahrain— two regimes that have employed increasing levels of violence on their own citizens. In one of the worst Arab massacres in recent years, pro-government forces in Yemen gunned down 52 peaceful protesters on March 18. More isolated than ever, Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh's days appear numbered. Leverage is meant to be used, and the United States should use it to pressure Saleh to initiate an immediate transition and leave office. In Bahrain, home to the American 5th Fleet, the United States should work toward a prompt removal of Saudi troops, who in mid-March entered the country to put down massive protests. These are provocative acts that make further escalation more, rather than less, likely.
Taking a stronger pro-democracy stand with friends as well as foes might be wishful thinking, expecting the Obama administration to do what it should, but ultimately can't do. But this is the standard that the administration has insisted on setting for itself. As the president said in his Monday speech, "Wherever people long to be free, they will find a friend in the United States." The trouble is that, three months into the Arab revolts, the administration repeatedly has failed to align its policies with Arab democratic aspirations. It sided with the protesters only toward the end in Tunisia and Egypt while continuing to back repressive regimes elsewhere, highlighting obvious double standards. To undo this mess of contradictions is no easy task. It would mean a sharp break with decades of supporting, funding and arming authoritarian regimes that supposedly helped advance U.S. interests.
This — the tension between ideals and interests — is an old story. In his second inaugural, President George W. Bush said, "America's vital interests and our deepest beliefs are now one." Reportedly, one of the principals at the strategy meeting debating military action in Libya noted that "this is the greatest opportunity to realign our interests and our values." That's correct. Libya does present an opportunity, but only if the standard there is applied consistently across the region. This requires a bold policy vision that prioritizes America's long-term interests over short-term considerations.
With the region in turmoil and Arabs demanding democracy, the United States — if the political will exists — is well positioned to engage in a major strategic shift. If it does, it stands to reassert its influence, regain credibility in the eyes of the Arab public and, most important, help facilitate a historic transition in the Middle East. The intervention in Libya could be the start of an attempted realignment in American policy. But it could just as easily be the end, forcing the United States to resign itself to a diminished role in a region spiraling quickly out of control.