[Debate] Trita Parsi on Libya, Syria, and Iran
critical.montages at gmail.com
Sun Aug 28 06:40:12 BST 2011
In 2009-2010, a lot of leftists were as excited about Iran's Green
Wave as they are about the Libyan rebels in 2011. However, as their
prediction that Iran was on the brink of a revolution went wrong for
many reasons -- e.g. because Mr. Mousavi wasn't a revolutionary that
he had been in his youth -- they appear to have lost all interest in
the Greens and Iran. The fall of Libya might be an opportunity for
them to rethink their Iran strategy, though. If you want to help
create at least one of the conditions for a revolution in Iran, you
had better legitimize the Islamic Republic and normalize the relations
between it and the West. That way, you will be giving Sayyid Ali a
chance to follow in Gaddafi's footsteps. However, anti-IRI leftists
tend not to even consider such a dialectical approach.
THURSDAY, AUG 25, 2011 13:01 ET
Who won Libya?
Why the rout of Gadhafi undermines the idea of American exceptionalism
BY TRITA PARSI
Should President Obama get credit for the imminent fall of the Moammar
Gadhafi regime in Libya? Or should President’s George W. Bush’s
neoconservative foreign policy be credited? True to form, Washington
has boiled the complex issues surrounding the Libya intervention down
to a simplistic question. But it’s a false choice. More than anything,
Libya -- and the Arab Spring as a whole -- is showing the limited
influence of the United States when compared to the power of the
people in the region when they take charge of their own destiny.
The Libya experience pointedly shows the fallacy of the
neoconservative thesis that talking to your enemies strengthens and
legitimizes them. This argument was repeated so frequently during the
Bush presidency that it became a truism. The United States shouldn’t
talk to North Korea because that would be a concession. It shouldn’t
talk to Iran, because Tehran does not deserve our company. And
Washington should not talk to the Syrians because that would
strengthen Assad’s rule.
Yet Bush did not shun the regime of Gadhafi. The Bush administration
itself continued the secret negotiations with Tripoli that had begun
under President Bill Clinton. After almost exactly seven years, a deal
was struck. Libya gave up its nuclear program and the West began
lifting its sanctions.
And it wasn’t just the United States. French President Nicholas
Sarkozy, who credits himself for having been the force behind NATO’s
decision to intervene in Libya, hosted Gadhafi in Paris in December
2007. Former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown tried to do the same
in December 2008. He extended an invitation to Gadhafi to come to
London, but a final date for the visit was never secured.
In fact, almost exactly a year ago, leading neoconservative Sens. John
McCain, Joe Lieberman and Lindsey Graham met with Gadhafi in Tripoli
and assured him "that the United States wanted to provide Libya with
Neither these visits, nor the preceding diplomacy, secured Gadhafi
from the wrath of his own people. It did not bestow upon his revolting
regime a single drop of legitimacy. It simply remained its rotten,
corrupt and dictatorial self.
The same was true for the regime of the Shah of Iran and Hosni
Mubarak’s Egypt. The Shah was one of America’s closest allies.
President Jimmy Carter toasted the Shah in Tehran on New Year’s Eve
1977, calling Iran an "island of stability" in a troubled Middle East.
A year later, following a popular uprising, the Shah’s regime was no
Yet for all this experience in the Middle East, neoconservatives
continue to assume that America is the universal source of legitimacy.
Like King Midas, anything it touches -- or talks to -- is legitimized
and turns into gold. Thus, to talk to another country is to do it a
favor. And we should only do favors to our friends. Our enemies, we
should defeat by force, not through conversation.
This line of thinking reveals three additional false notions, relevant
not just to Libya, but also to the Arab Spring and to U.S. policy
First, that indigenous populations have essentially no ability to
bestow legitimacy on their governments. America decides what is
legitimate or not for them; they themselves have no say in this. The
social contract is not between the populations and their state, but
rather, between the state and the government of the United States.
Second, that if the United States ends up talking to an unsavory
regime, that act, in and of itself, disenfranchises the local
opposition and ensures the survival of the regime. Once Washington
bestows legitimacy on the regime by talking to it, the internal
opposition is left helpless and powerless.
Third, that the United States stands at the center of all political
analyses. The United States is assumed to be -- contrary to all
empirical evidence -- virtually omnipotent. All other actors are at
best reacting to U.S. policy and thinking. There isn’t much
distribution of power to speak of -- the United States holds (or
should hold) most cards, and other states are left fighting for the
bread crumbs that fall off Washington’s dinner table.
These assumptions invariably lead to Washington’s knee-jerk instinct
to think that the U.S. government always has to do something. And that
it is also responsible for almost all developments and outcomes.
Taking a step back, observing developments, or showing patience are
near treacherous acts according to this mind-set; hence the ferocious
criticism of Obama’s handling of the Arab Spring.
As erroneous as this line of thinking is, it resonates strongly among
large portions of the American public because it bestows on the United
States a form of divine responsibility and strengthens the sense of
American exceptionalism. (It is no coincidence that Obama has also
been fiercely criticized for his remarks on the very phrase.) And it
tends to win support among disgruntled exiled opposition groups as
well because it provides them with an opportunity to exonerate
themselves of any responsibility for independent leadership while
putting additional responsibility on America’s shoulders.
Even the outcome in Libya ultimately shows that America’s ability to
drive events in lands far away is limited at best. But shunning
dialogue and diplomacy on the theory that we do our enemies a favor by
talking to them only limits that influence further.
Trita Parsi is the 2010 Recipient of the Grawemeyer Award for Ideas
Improving World Order. He is the author of the forthcoming book, "A
Single Role of the Dice -- Obama's Diplomacy with Iran" (Yale
University Press 2012). More: Trita Parsi
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