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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Imbecilic conclusions

by AMIR1973 on

Not surprisingly, the West-residing IRI Groupies (including the "reformist" and Stalinist subspecies) have drawn the wrong conclusions about nuclear weapons. Pakistan has an arsenal of dozens of nuclear weapons and fortunately that arsenal has never made the U.S. hesitate one minute to kill Islamist terrorist thugs inside Pakistan using its Predator drones. Needless to say, I agree 110% with the U.S. policy of killing Islamist terrorists since the best policy vis-a-vis the Islamist menace is one of pre-emption (one that the Shah of Iran failed to follow by exiling Khomeini rather than executing him).


Supid & out of touch or a deliberate distorter of facts?

by Roozbeh_Gilani on

which  would best describe the kind of a person who'd write let alone believe in this mumbo jumbo of a blog?

Author's thinly veiled message is utterly wrong and darn dangerous....,US and Nato did not attack Lybia because she abandoned her nuclear arms programme. They did so in order to take advantage of a genuinly popular urising against Gadaffi, by supporting the revolutionary forces. Any half sane minded person, even the islamist regime leadership knows it. Had lybia possesed a few comrade kim ill jumg built Nuke warheads, The nato attack would have for sure gone ahead, with ten time more severity, and massive civilian casualties.

"Undeniable right",  my foot :)


"Personal business must yield to collective interest."


1/4 truths... Ahhhh Please

by amirparvizforsecularmonarchy on

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


Did you miss the 20,000 sorties lead by the USA, France, UK, Italy, the Arming of members of Islamist Organizations?  The Libyan Army didn't bomb itself out of existence.

In a city of 2,000,000 Million People, Tripoli, now that all the shooting has stopped, exactly how many people do you see celebrating the forceful removal of the regime?


I wonder how that can be?

Poor people. :(




The fundamental problem

by vildemose on

The fundamental problem with NIAC and CASMII and the rest of these people is that they believe that there is good Basiji and kind Sepahi and at the end the Islamic Republic is what the Iranians deserve, but not a free and democratic society.

 NIACIAN embrace the same political and economic  philosophies which benefit the very wealthy of any society be it Iranian society or the Americans'. It's all about money and power, period. This is just another worthless reactionary piece by a shrewd and unscrupulous businessman.

Reform requires the consent of the corrupt


در گیری نیاکیان با نیوکان ها!


Trita's True Colors!

I am really glad that Trita Parsi opens his mouth and expresses his views because in the course of putting out his arguments he actually shows his true colors.

What he is saying is basically this. Regimes like Gadhafi, Assad or Khamenei can kill and torture people, and while it is bad, oh well stuff happens in the world, and not everything is perfect and we need to sit down and negotiate and accept the legitimacy of these regimes, blah, blah, blah! But heaven forbid if the big bad wolf US, NATO or the international community comes in and tries to even out the fight by giving the weaker side a helping hand.

So the bully can push everyone around in the playground and we should accept that as the norm, but the second the police comes in and kick the bully’s ass, Trita cries foul!

The fundamental problem with NIAC and CASMII and the rest of these people is that they believe that there is good Basiji and kind Sepahi and at the end the Islamic Republic is what the Iranians deserve, but not a free and democratic society.

That would be too pro West, and we can’t have that!


American language 101 for Middle Easterners...

by پندارنیک on

Get the nukes technology, and not necessarily the bomb, and don't give it up. Never.......


Half truth

by Fred on

It seems the bottom line of this longish write up by the lifetime president of the NIAC lobby is that, US should be talking to the Islamist Rapist Republic as this lobbyist has been pushing for.

What he fails to mention is that Obama did offer his hand of friendship to the Islamist Rapists and the offer of unconditional talks, the Islamist Rapists did not take him up on it.

BTW, why doesn’t the lifetime president of NIAC lobby ever condemn the Islamist Rapists Republic for its warmongering and refusing to hold unconditional talks?

 Ps. “neoconservatives” do not occupy the White House nor have the majority in the US Senate.