Libya shows US actions can be aligned with intentions

US values and intentions in the Middle East have rarely translated into a policy acceptable to most Arabs. But Libya has been an exception.

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On an August morning in 1945, a four-tonne bomb fell silently through the skies over a large city in south-western Japan. It exploded in a blinding flash over the waking city.

In an instant, tens of thousands of men, women and children were melted by the heat, buildings instantly vanished. Such was the intensity of the bomb that people were incinerated where they stood, in some cases leaving nothing but their shadows burnt on to walls. The United States had unleashed the worst weapon in mankind's arsenal on a city's civilians.

Had the Americans, in a show of ruthlessness and force, sealed off Hiroshima and gone door to door putting bullets in the heads of 100,000 men, women and children, it would have been called one of the greatest massacres of the 20th century. Does the fact that they did so from the air, for the exact same reason and with the exact same result, make a difference?

The difference is one of intention and action, an especially important distinction in the Middle East, a region where so much of US policy falls into the grey hinterland between the two. The intention behind dropping the atomic bomb on Hiroshima was not to massacre those people, although that was the result, but to end a war that killed so many, brought so much suffering to Asia and would, had the war not ended, have continued to do so.

What does all this have to do with the modern Middle East? It has to do with Libya, where, rarely for the United States in the region, its intentions and ideals have tallied with its actions. To put it another way, US forces went into battle for their country's values rather than its interests. And that provides an opening for America that, if pushed, could open a door to a better relationship with the Middle East.

America has historically faced a dilemma in its dealings with the world beyond its borders. Like all countries, it has interests that it seeks to defend. And like all great powers, its military and economic clout give it various avenues to coerce other nations (and actors within those nations) into doing its bidding.

So far, so normal. But the United States, and the West more generally, has tended to make much of its values, both as a genuine way to conduct foreign policy, and as a way of shielding itself from criticism of its excesses. Horrors done in the name of morals.

In the Middle East, this has always meant the United States faces challenges, for it has legitimate interests in the region's vast energy reserves, and yet at the same time has needed to deal with inconvenient facts on the ground. The United States did not create all the problems of the Middle East, but having found itself there for strategic reasons, it necessarily involved itself in the politics of the region, usually messily.

This is where the distinction between intentions and actions comes in. For US watchers and supporters - at home, in Europe and in the Arab world - it has good intentions and sometimes, in the name of these good intentions, bad things need to be done.

For the Middle East, these intentions are less important. What matters are the actions of the United States. Those actions, in the form of political and military force, have affected the region severely.

For those civilians killed by bombs and soldiers in Iraq, families whose members were fired on by drones in Pakistan, and all those who have suffered at the hands of US-backed regimes across the regime, intentions don't matter. Actions do.

This gap between intention and action has long been clear to Arabs in the region. Even at the height of President Barack Obama's "new way forward" with the Arab world in mid-2009, there was insufficient action taken to make the good intentions a reality. Mr Obama, after all, appeared as the guest of Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, but didn't criticise his regime nor push him to reform until Egyptians themselves toppled him.

The Arab Spring has provided the United States (and other western actors) with a political education, showing that a repressive status quo is unsustainable in the long term. Stung by being so clearly on the wrong side of history over Tunisia and Egypt, Mr Obama was keen to do right by Libya.

Libya is not the United States' war (it matters far more to Britain and France) but, nevertheless, it has put its aircraft and their crew on the line to protect the Libyan uprising. Its intentions were right, because the United States had more to lose from the revolution than by keeping Col Muammar Qaddafi in power. Col Qaddafi had paid reparations for the Lockerbie bombing, given up his weapons programme and opened his country to western firms. From the point of view of US policy, abandoning Col Qaddafi now he was a friend was bad politics. And yet Mr Obama did so, following the United States' intention to protect the uprising and civilians.

The Libyan intervention, an unusual alliance of the United States' intentions and actions, is not going to usher in a new era; the Middle East is too complex for that. The United States stayed silent during the protests in Bahrain and continues to mouth platitudes while the Israeli occupation of Palestine is tightened.

But it may set a new precedent for US actions, a demonstration that the values, interests and actions of the remaining superpower can still be aligned, even in the most strategic region in the world.