RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
In his speech last night, President Obama gave specific reasons why he was willing to intervene in Libya. He said the U.S. had the responsibility to act and also had an international coalition. But the action raises the question of where else the U.S. could intervene in the Arab uprisings.
NPR's Jackie Northam reports.
JACKIE NORTHAM: In the opening days of the revolutionary movement sweeping through the Middle East, the Obama administration was criticized for standing on the sidelines. Officials argued 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.
Scott Carpenter is a Keston Family Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East policy.
Mr. SCOTT CARPENTER (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.
NORTHAM: Carpenter says that U.S. policy planners likely assessed there would be a positive outcome for military intervention in Libya. And there was 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.
Professor MICHAEL BARNETT (George Washington University): The fear is that you may, in fact, as you engage in one intervention, you create expectations down the road for future interventions.
NORTHAM: There are ongoing uprisings in several countries in the region, among them Yemen, Bahrain and Syria, where government forces have killed unarmed protesters. But there hasn't been talk, at least publicly, about intervening. Administration officials say that's in part because the violence in those countries is not on the same scale as 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.
Mr. BRIAN KATULIS (Center for American Progress): I think on all foreign policy, national security questions, there is always going to be a competition and sometimes a clash between what our principles are and then what our core interests are. 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.
NORTHAM: The administration's response to uprisings in Yemen and Bahrain has been muted. They are two strategic U.S. allies, especially Bahrain. The U.S. 5th Fleet is based there 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.
Mr. KATULIS: If in Bahrain the concern is about containing Iran and maintaining, you know, a stable supply of oil out of the Gulf, in Yemen, I think, a key concern is the fight against al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula.
NORTHAM: 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.
But George Washington University's Barnett says that could change.
Mr. BARNETT: I guess 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.
NORTHAM: The Washington Institute's Scott Carpenter says it would be more complicated to intervene in Syria than Libya. Gadhafi was reviled and Libya had few allies, but Syria has some powerful allies, including Iran, and Carpenter says a military intervention there could severely disrupt the dynamics of the region.
Mr. CARPENTER: One of the strategic partnerships, if you will, of the Syrian regime has been both Hamas and Hezbollah. And 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.
NORTHAM: Still, Carpenter says the international reaction to the situation in Libya may give Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad pause, and that a military intervention is no longer unthinkable.
Jackie Northam, NPR News, Washington.