The USS Barry launches a Tomahawk missile, targeting radar and anti-aircraft sites along Libya's Mediterranean coast on Saturday.
U.S. Navy/Getty Images
U.S. Navy/Getty Images
During the opening days of the revolutionary movement sweeping through the Arab world, the Obama administration was criticized for standing on the sidelines. Officials argued that the U.S. did keep an eye on unfolding events in places like Egypt and Tunisia, but stressed that it was up to the protesters to take ownership of the revolution and their future.
That changed with the uprisings in Libya and the violence unleashed by Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi, says Scott Carpenter, a Keston Family fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East policy.
"In the case of Libya and Gadhafi himself as a person, one was under no illusions that he would use force to massacre people in Benghazi and perhaps elsewhere," Carpenter says.
Carpenter, who served as deputy assistant secretary of state for Near East policy in the George W. Bush administration, says U.S. policy planners likely assessed that there would be a positive outcome for military intervention in Libya. There was also widespread backing, including from the Arab League, for the operation.
But Michael Barnett, a specialist in international politics and humanitarian intervention at George Washington University, says the decision to intervene could set a precedent.
"The fear is that you may, in fact, as you engage in one intervention, you create expectations down the road for future interventions," Barnett says.
There are ongoing uprisings in several countries in the region, including Yemen, Bahrain and Syria — where government forces have killed unarmed protesters. But there hasn't been talk, at least publicly, about an intervention. Administration officials say that's in part because the violence in those countries is not on the same scale as that in Libya.
Brian Katulis, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, says the administration is approaching each country on a case-by-case basis, and weighing the various interests. He says that on all foreign policy and national security questions, there is always going to be a competition and sometimes a clash between American principles and U.S. core interests.
Katulis says each administration has to strike the right balance.
But "when you have multiple uprisings and voices pushing for unrest in multiple countries in the Middle East, having a different approach opens up the administration, I think, to charges of hypocrisy," he says.
Muted Response To Other Unrest
The administration's response to uprisings in Yemen and Bahrain has been muted. Both are strategic U.S. allies. Bahrain is home of the U.S. 5th Fleet, and the island nation is seen as one of the pillars of containment against Iran. Analysts say it's unlikely the U.S. would intervene in either country because it has too much at stake.
"If in Bahrain the concern is about containing Iran and maintaining a stable supply of oil out of the [Persian] Gulf, in Yemen, I think, a key concern ... is the fight against al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula," Katulis says.
Katulis says what will be interesting to watch is how the U.S. and the broader international community deal with the uprising in Syria. Government forces there have opened fire on protest rallies, killing and detaining scores of people. The country has a long history of dealing harshly with dissent. Katulis says U.S. options for Syria are limited.
Iran, Hamas And Hezbollah
But Barnett, of George Washington University, says that could change.
"I'd be willing to bet that if you found the casualty levels rise to what happened in the 1980s, with tens of thousands dead, then you'd find tremendous pressure for an intervention," he says.
Carpenter, of the Washington Institute, says it would be more complicated to intervene in Syria than in Libya. Gadhafi was reviled and Libya had few allies, but Syria has powerful allies, including Iran. Carpenter says a military intervention there could severely disrupt the dynamics of the region.
"One of the strategic partnerships, if you will, of the Syrian regime has been both Hamas and Hezbollah," Carpenter says. "And so with Hezbollah as a very well-armed, very well-trained force ... if they would get involved in this, should there be an international intervention, I think it could spark a regional war."
Still, Carpenter says the international reaction to the situation in Libya may give Syrian leader Bashar Assad pause, and that a military intervention is no longer unthinkable.