Bombing by International Consensus
Libya reveals the complications of multilateralism.


In his speech last Monday, President Obama did manage to identify a few U.S. interests that could be threatened by the turmoil in Libya. But he placed far more emphasis on the moral case for action — our “responsibility to act.” And when he summarized his actions — consulting with other nations, pressing for U.N. Security Council resolutions that condemn Libya, imposing sanctions, and authorizing the use of force to protect civilians — notably missing was any effort to secure congressional approval.

The speech, in other words, clarified Obama’s views on how U.S. foreign policy should be conducted. This stark contrast — no formal consultation with Congress, but robust consultation with, and obeisance to, the U.N. Security Council — supports those who have argued that the Obama Doctrine deemphasizes American sovereignty. The president evidently believes that 1) U.S. interests are better served through consultation with the international community and 2) U.S. goals are better met by multilateral efforts negotiated through bodies such as the U.N. Security Council.

President Obama put it this way in the speech:

The burden of action should not be America’s alone. As we have in Libya, our task is instead to mobilize the international community for collective action. Because contrary to the claims of some, American leadership is not simply a matter of going it alone and bearing all of the burden ourselves. Real leadership creates the conditions and coalitions for others to step up as well; to work with allies and partners so that they bear their share of the burden and pay their share of the costs; and to see that the principles of justice and human dignity are upheld by all.

This belief rejects, or at least gives scant credence to, the idea that America should lead other nations through its actions and that, if action is deemed necessary, it is worth pursuing unilaterally. Contrary to the president’s claims, leadership often requires taking the unpopular course and assuming difficult burdens or heavy costs, rather than joining a comfortable consensus. Leaders don’t await the approval of international focus groups.  

To borrow the words of George H. W. Bush, the Obama Doctrine would seemingly relegate the U.S. to being just “another pleasant country on the United Nations roll call somewhere out there between Albania and Zimbabwe.”

The administration can take pride in winning Security Council approval of the Libyan resolutions. It was no easy matter, considering China and Russia’s longstanding opposition to external interference in sovereign territory. (Both countries can veto Security Council resolutions, but abstained from the vote on Libya.) But going down the multilateral route in this matter has costs as well as benefits.

The Obama administration’s motivation in seeking these resolutions was to secure “international legitimacy” for its actions in Libya. The problem is that now, the war’s legitimacy is dependent on international support. If that support withers, the legitimacy similarly fades. There is already pressure from countries that did not support the resolution: China, India, Russia, Turkey, and the Arab League all promptly condemned the attacks.

Worse, the strikes haven’t convinced Qaddafi to “go.” There have been defections, but the regime’s forces are now pushing back the rebels. So what next if Qaddafi stays? By justifying his actions through international approval in the Security Council, the president has made it extremely difficult to take additional actions — which could include offensive strikes to oust Qaddafi, or a ground-force invasion — if they are not approved in the same manner.

The administration could argue that ousting Qaddafi is necessary to “to protect civilians and civilian-populated areas under threat of attack.” That’s probably correct. But as the president said in his speech, “If we tried to overthrow Qaddafi by force, our coalition would splinter.” Moreover, such action would cast grave doubt on the “international legitimacy” of the operation, which is integral to the president’s argument for action, by violating the terms of the Security Council resolution. The administration could seek additional Security Council authorization to oust Qaddafi, but that looks unlikely now that China and Russia have expressed concern about the current operation.