People Power

Why the rout of Gadhafi undermines the idea of American exceptionalism


People Power
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 military equipment."

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 more.

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 toward Iran.

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.

First published in

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).


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more from Trita Parsi

american exceptionism

by sparrowlake on

Not based on projecting militery power...Its roots go back to the french wirter as he observed free people engaging in economic activity and life in general without bias to their religion, or status.  The attitude of making something of yourself without the government.  Just  the opposite as you portary it above. Somehting unknown in this part of the world

Americna exceptionlism is not the misguided attempt by politicans to maintain stability and relations with foreign leaders that are tyrannts.  It is interesting that you say the people did all this. The fact is all those people would be dead if it wasn't for American air superiority. The revolution would be a still born baby and the tyrannt would still be in  power



Libya was a profitable move at a time the west needed money

by amirparvizforsecularmonarchy on

The returns will far out do the costs.

Many people did hate Gaddafi but it was not high as an overall percentage of the population.  The celebrations organized in triple were tiny compared with the population of 2 million.

They got a 30,000 or 3% turn out after the fighting ended, popular? hardly

Libya had the highest standard of living and wages in all Africa, comparable with Chile.  Nations Average Annual salary was $12k per year, I pray for the libyans that there future is upwards, but that was never the goal.



Facts on Libya

by Madison on

T.P. draws a parallel between Qaddafi and The Shah of Iran, a simplification to this extend is needed to make his theory hold!:-)
Fact: Why after 5 months of fighting, 1,3 millions people of Libya would march against NATO intervention? 
Fact: If the Qaddafi regime was so rutten and corrupt, how could he succeed creating a welfair society from the poorest country in the world?
Fact: If the people of Libya were against him, how would he dare giving a million arms to the people in a country of total 6 million?
If the majority of the libyans were against him, US could simply achive a regime change by elections!
Nope, the people of Libya didn't oust Qaddafi, he is being ousted by NATO and US special forces on the ground with CIA organized arab fighters with links to Alqaeda joined by Qatari military invation of Tripoli.

Ramin J

NIAC Dark KNight

by Ramin J on

this article as published by Ehaass, it's well worth a read. This thread kinda proves him/her right:


Roozbeh we're all Mojaheds here. We just have different gods.

by amirparvizforsecularmonarchy on

A mojahed means warrior of god,

politics is full of lies, if MeK is a warrior of god and khomeini was gods voice on earth then my Aunt is Sophia Lauren.

Hugh Heffner is a Mojahed too and I prefer his god to khomeini's any day of the week.


iraj khan


by iraj khan on

No, I don't think you or others who are disagreeing with NIAC on this thread are followers of Mojahedin.

That's not what I meant. I have a pretty good understanding of how Mojahedin supporters sound like. What I'm trying to convey is pretty close to what Tiger Lily says. Let there be tens and hundreds of Iranian organizations and each try to make our lives inside and outside of Iran better.

Not all organizations are supposed to be 'revolutionary' and in the service of overthrowing IRI. That's all. I have followed NIAC's work for more than a decade (give or take a year or two) and I support what they do.

Do I think Trita Parsi is a revolutionary anti Iranian government activist? No.

Do I think he and his organization help us as a minority living in the United States? Yes.



Iraj Khan: Just answer the question, for the third time.....

by Roozbeh_Gilani on

لپّ حرف تو چیه؟ می‌خوای بگی‌ که ما هممون طرفدار مجاهدین هستیم چونکه از تریتا خان انتقاد کردیم؟....

G. Rahmanian

Satanic Temptations!

by G. Rahmanian on

If you decide to set up an organization, Faramaz, make your better half the president or at least vice president! There are merits in doing that. For one, she thinks she's in charge and leaves you alone when you're flirting with the female members. Just a friendly piece of advice!

Tiger Lily


by Tiger Lily on

Sounds to me as if they are doing  their own brand of , and I mean in general, "jaw, jaw, jaw", so, 

Perperizi, get up and start your own organization. I'm serious. Why should one organization claim to be all your voices over there, when very clearly, it isn't?

Set it up. Won't cost you a penny. If people believe in it, they'll contribute their services for free and gladly. 



I tend to keep scythes under the table! 

I like them so much. 


Wily Tiger!

by Faramarz on

I’ll wear my armor when I come for a visit, like one of those Knights around the Round Table!

Now, back to the topic at hand.

It takes patience to get the rat out of the rat hole, but we succeeded with this character!

So NIAC is taking steps to improve the lives of Iranian-Americans by focusing on one thing and one thing only; promoting a Grand Bargain with the Regime at the expense of the average Iranians and looking the other way while Iranians are being detained, tortured and killed.


Tiger Lily

iraj khan, thank you for

by Tiger Lily on

thanking me and


Perperizi (Faramarz),



Sometimes I cut through things, other times,


I cut things! 



iraj khan

Thank you Tiger Lily,

by iraj khan on

Tiger Lily stated:

"Stop your geriatric moaning (against NIAC and its members) and set up your own organization." 

What organization I ask?

Their lack of organization has to do with with the helpnessess of their intellect and an overactive mouth, So, the mouth does the job of the brain. It all points to symptoms of idleness. 

Meanwhile NIAC along with its members takes steps to improve Iranian Americans lives. 


I had a legit question

by SamSamIIII on


Yet for whatever reason it was deleted, so i,m gone re-post it with minor adjustment. Again, Mr Farsi, how did you get my email list?..& as for Jahanshah , if they were providde  this info with your indirect knowledge which i think it did you might as well come out, confirm it & get it over with. All i want to know is that ;, did my subscription to automaticaly made me a member of CASMI & NIAC & if so what else they know about average folks like me & WHO they share it with?. So my main worry is them & not you JJ.  So honestly you owe me this much as a old timer here to explain..whats the big deal?..


G. Rahmanian

ننه من غريبم

G. Rahmanian

For years NIAC cadres have been threatened by the PMOI members in the US and they haven't taken any legal action yet? Liars!

Soosan Khanoom

Thanks RB jan

by Soosan Khanoom on

For getting off the boring bla bla subject and for posting such a delightfull quotes .. Loved them all 

: ) 


NIAC Accuses MEK of "Iranian-McCarthyism"

by BoosBoos on

As you know, supporters of the MEK have for years used threats and fear to intimidate our community and the pro-democracy forces into silence. NIAC has been a long-time target of theirs, spreading lies that NIAC is an agent of the Islamic Republic. As part of their intimidation campaign, they set up a page on Facebook that they used to spread these lies. Over this weekend, after investigating the page, Facebook closed it down on the grounds that it was defamatory. This is a major victory and shows that the MEK’s fear and intimidation campaign will not succeed. Please spread the good news!"

JJ  how is this different?




Tiger Hillbilly

by Faramarz on

You and your willy nilly comments!


Reality Bites,

Those old Marx Brothers movies have the best lines. I love them!

Tiger Lily

To those who have issues with NIAC continuously:

by Tiger Lily on

Stop your geriatric moaning and set up your own organization. 




SK jaan

by Reality-Bites on

Why are you upset with yourself, aziz?

Is it because you've been too lazy to go the gym? Well, that's no reason to be upset. Being lazy is an Iranian birth right. Didn't you know?

Faramarz, Groucho is one of my all time heroes. A couple more Groucho gems:

“One morning I shot an elephant in my pajamas. How he got into my pajamas I'll never know.” 

“I never forget a face, but in your case I'll be glad to make an exception.” 

"I must confess, I was born at a very early age." 

Groucho demonstrating a card trick say to a man: "pick a card and don't tell me what it is." The man picks a card.

Groucho starts walking away and the man says: "so what do I do with the card?" Groucho shouts back to the bemused man: "you can keep it. I've got 51 left!" 


(PS: apologies to all for getting off the subject, I thought a light-hearted interlude might be a good thing).

Soosan Khanoom

oh come on Faramarz

by Soosan Khanoom on

you mean not even a gym?  I do have gym membership but I am so upset with myself  that I am not attending their meetings ...  



Soosan Khanoom

by Faramarz on

The 2-3 people that I've called NIACies have expressed their outright support for that organization in their commentaries. And if one of them comes out and says that he is not a member and has nothing to do with that group, I will gladly apologize to him immediately.

For the record, I am not a member of any organization and as Groucho Marx said some time ago, "I don't want to belong to any club that will accept me as a member!"

Soosan Khanoom

Although , Framarz

by Soosan Khanoom on

I should say that being labeled as a NIAC Groupi is not that bad ..... So your labels are not that outrages anyway : )

I like many things about the NIAC. I have my share of both disagreements and agreements with this group but over all I think NIAC is a good organization. 

I am just too lazy to join any organization and too lazy to move my butt to attend any meeting but I soon may cause I like to see in person what is NIAC group all about and who are these people ?   Believe me, once I become a member I will let everyone know...     

maziar 58

from: an Iranian

by maziar 58 on


C/O   NIAC et all

To : The represntetative of smart & sophisticated Iran in D.C

please do not treat us like retards and colect more cash in the name of libyan peoples Thanks in advance of more sanction.

cc: agha Ramin

p.s how was Irene BTW ?


Soosan Khanoom


by Soosan Khanoom on

You lecture that how everyone are being labelled on this site but you yourself label Iraj as some groupi or so ?

Let us all avoid labels .... 

I can write a book of labels that have been given to me on this site !   


خوندم دوباره، سه باره، بازم نمیفهمم چی‌ می‌خوای بگی‌..


لپّ حرف تو چیه؟ می‌خوای بگی‌ که ما هممون طرفدار مجاهدین هستیم چونکه از تریتا خان انتقاد کردیم؟....


Iraj Khan

by Faramarz on

I went through all the comments as you requested and here is what I found.

Everybody who commented here with the exception of you and a couple of others talked about Libya, the merits of support for the rebels and Trita's steadfast opposition to have all the options on the table when one deals with a military dictatorship like Libya, Syria or the Islamic Republic.

It is you and the other 2-3 NIACies that brought Zionists/AIPAC, retards and MEK de-listing into this conversation

iraj khan


by iraj khan on

Read the comments on this thread.


موش مردگی نیاکیون!


اقای ایرج، بابا حالا تو چرا دوباره پای مسعود رجوی رو کشیدی وسعت این بحث؟ چرا هر وقت که "رهبر" شما دهانش رو باز میکنه، آبرو ریزی میکنه می‌‌زنی به خط "مجاهدین"؟ اصلا این بحث چه ربطی‌ داره به دعوا بین نیاکیون و مجاهدون؟ مثلا میخوای بگی‌ که هر کی‌ اینجا از "رهبر" تریتا انتقاد کرد از طرف دارن مجاهدین هست؟!! بابا صد رحمت به کیهان شریعتمداری!

iraj khan

MEK defamatory page removed from Face Book

by iraj khan on

Update by Jamal Abdi (NIAC): 

"It’s been another busy week in the campaign to prevent the MEK from getting delisted as a foreign terrorist organization. I wanted to give you a few updates:

1.  Victory! As you know, supporters of the MEK have for years used threats and fear to intimidate our community and the pro-democracy forces into silence. NIAC has been a long-time target of theirs, spreading lies that NIAC is an agent of the Islamic Republic. As part of their intimidation campaign, they set up a page on Facebook that they used to spread these lies. Over this weekend, after investigating the page, Facebook closed it down on the grounds that it was defamatory. This is a major victory and shows that the MEK’s fear and intimidation campaign will not succeed. Please spread the good news!"



 Anahid jan: You're most

by vildemose on

 Anahid jan: You're most welcome.

Reform requires the consent of the corrupt