The Realist Prism: Libya Precedent Limits Obama’s Hand on Iran

The Realist Prism: Libya Precedent Limits Obama’s Hand on Iran

The Obama administration took office in 2009 with high hopes that it would be able to break the diplomatic stalemate over Iran’s uranium enrichment program. Now, as the Obama team finishes its fourth summer with no resolution to the nuclear imbroglio in sight, it is a good time to take stock of its efforts.

Obama’s national security team wanted to break out of what it saw as a binary choice between having to learn to live with a nuclear Iran or using force to end the Iranian nuclear program. The possibility of a third way beckoned: duplicating the terms of the deal reached between Libya and the West by which Moammar Gadhafi divested himself of his programs to develop weapons of mass destruction and renounced his support for terrorist groups. The deal was the culmination of a policy approach spanning the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations that had combined economic pressure on Libya in the form of sanctions with negotiations and the threat of military action -- the last of which Gadhafi took much more seriously after the rapid decapitation of Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq in 2003.

The Libya deal was grounded in realist, Westphalian principles that put an emphasis on a state’s external behavior, not its internal composition: In return for becoming a more constructive force in international affairs, including support for the U.S. campaign against al-Qaida, Gadhafi received assurances that he would not be the target of U.S. conventional military power. There was never any guarantee that Washington would intervene to prop up or support his regime, only that it would not be attacked as long as it carried out its international obligations.

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