Opinion polling shows the American public groping for an approach to foreign policy that protects U.S. interests and values without bankrupting our nation financially, militarily or morally. An extreme version of this debate is playing out around the 2012 Republican primary. While Representative Ron Paul gives full voice to the tradition of American isolationism, Governors Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman have taken tentative steps away from GOP orthodoxy by calling for significant troop withdrawals from Afghanistan. This isolationism-minded position has also found some support from Republicans in both houses of Congress. That has garnered strong pushback from Senators John McCain (R-AZ) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC), the dominant conservative national security voices in Congress, as well as the party’s neoconservative intellectuals. Poll numbers suggest the public is looking for a sober, pragmatic, collaborative approach. With tempers getting heated – this weekend Senator Graham suggested that Congress should “sorta shut up” and former White House speechwriter Marc Thiessen described the 2012 candidates’ views as “flirtation with retreat” – they don’t seem likely to get it from the conservative political debate.
Washington is witnessing two parallel debates around the conflict in Libya. On the ground, the Libyan rebels are making slow political and military progress. NATO continues efforts to break the stalemate, but a desirable outcome – specifically the outlines of a post-conflict or post-Qaddafi Libya – remains unclear. At home, Congress is examining its own role in authorizing continued U.S. operations in Libya, with lawmakers voting for an amendment to cut off funding for the operation and passing a symbolic resolution chiding President Obama for not seeking Congressional authorization for U.S. intervention. Despite this debate, neither Congress nor the administration has presented a unified view of what the process should be.
Headlines focus on the countries in the Middle East mired in violence. But elsewhere, institution building is underway in Tunisia and Egypt, where elections are slated for this fall. NATO representatives are meeting once again to discuss a post-Qaddafi Libya and how states can assist the opposition. Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh remains in Saudi Arabia, furthering speculation over his well-being and a possible power transfer. Syrians in one northern town are fleeing to Turkey in the face of a military crackdown, as UN efforts intensify to condemn the Syrian regime and investigate Syria’s nuclear activities.
The departure of Yemen's President Ali Abdullah Saleh for medical treatment in Saudi Arabia highlights the deep turmoil there, flowing from strains which pre-existed the "Arab Spring" movement and in many ways, experts say, bear little relationship to it. With poverty, a strong al Qaeda presence, ethnic fissures, one of the world's highest population growth rates - and small arms outnumbering people three to one - Yemen denies outsiders influence or easy solutions. But experts stress that a combination of diplomacy, incentives and a counterterrorism focus do offer tools to safeguard U.S. interests and ease the suffering of Yemeni civilians.