There is an important current in American diplomacy which seeks to uphold, expand and promote democracy, human rights and freedom throughout the world. This rhetoric of promoting freedom often plays second fiddle to more immediate policy priorities, which subscribe to a realist prioritisation of security maximisation.

Image courtesy of US Department of Defense, public domain.

The State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labour captains this movement, yet also acknowledges that over the long term, promoting these values is beneficial to the US and pays realist, security-related dividends. These benefits were mentioned at the Bureau’s 35th Anniversary celebration in June, where Hillary Clinton stated that, “As President Obama’s National Security Strategy recognises, a world that is more democratic is a world with fewer adversaries and more partners.” Critiques of the democratic peace theory aside, other speakers at the event shared anecdotes in which the US supported a freedom movement which eventually toppled a despotic regime. Those same activists who struggled to freedom with US support rose to be the ministers of the new government, and were profoundly grateful to the US for their earlier support, thus earning the US a close ally, and a more stable world.

The world that Obama imagines, one more stable and free than today’s, is the intersection between the ideals of security and freedom in American foreign policy. In a world where the mission of democracy and universal human rights is accomplished, the US would also find more friends than it does today. That world, however, is a long, long way away.

In the short term, immediate security concerns contradict these long term ideological goals. This contrast is clear in the aftermath of the Libyan revolution, perhaps nowhere more poignantly as with surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) that disappeared from Al-Qaddafi’s arsenals during the 2011 revolution.

This issue of these SAMs has been discussed in depth by C.J. Chivers, a writer for The New York Times and an authority on the subject. SAMs are a potent threat because they allow an individual with little training to shoot down almost any type of plane. There are an unknown number of older SA-7 missiles, even fewer of the actual SA-7 shoulder-launchers and the newer vehicle-mounted SA-24 launchers, which are floating throughout Northern Africa and, according to some reports, the entire Middle East.

This article does not seek to address the threat these weapons pose to civil aviation, however grave or overstated it may be (the issue is still being debated in security circles.) Instead, this article addresses the threat these weapons pose to ongoing US military operations in Africa, and uses the Libyan case as a specific example of the short term consequences of the conflict between the ideologically motivated support of Libya’s revolutionaries and the real consequences of that decision for American security.

These loose SAMs change the operating environment for US forces that undertake semi-covert reconnaissance flights over large parts of Africa to monitor and observe Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, rebels in Mali, and various other targets as far apart as Uganda and the Horn of Africa.

It is not only the operational element which is under threat today. The growing system of contracted private airfreight for logistics and supply delivery to the burgeoning US presences in Africa is also threatened by these loose SAMs because, though as ponderous as military transports, they likely lack the advanced countermeasures that protect military planes .

This is a particular example of how the ideals-based foreign policy of supporting the Libyan rebels in their fight for freedom has unleashed unforeseen and immediate consequences for ongoing operations throughout Africa which contribute to American security today. By no means does this mean that the US should not have supported Libyan rebels. Instead, it illustrates the tension between the long term gains of democracy, freedom and human rights and the short term prerogatives of security and military necessity.

The question then is how to get from the short term to the long term while managing the contradictions between the two aspirations of safety today and stability tomorrow. Ultimately, American foreign policy should emphasise the long term goal of freedom and human rights for all, not only in due regard to America’s own ideals, but also in the belief that such a world would be a better, more stable and a safer place to live. Naturally, Libyan SAMs are just one small example of how fighting terrorists and despots at the same time complicates security today. But the US and its foreign policy must cope with these challenges. It is a true test of commitment to American values if the US upholds them even when it is dangerous, and it must do precisely that. When supporting democracy and universal human rights is risky, the solution must be to batten down the hatches, conduct buyback programs to chase down loose SAMs, invest in countermeasures to protect the mission, and generally run risks, elevated though they may be. It is a difficult and dangerous journey to undertake between today and a more free future. Rather than choosing not to take that road at all as the path may harm us today, we must instead invest in better boots and slog on through.