Bombing by International Consensus
Libya reveals the complications of multilateralism.


In essence, the administration has trapped itself. It most likely can’t protect civilians in Libya without forcing Qaddafi out. But that would likely require actions that would violate the very resolutions that it thought necessary to legitimize its actions.

With military options narrowing, politicians in the U.S. and other countries have offered alternative solutions to the crisis, including arming the rebels or facilitating a comfortable retirement for Qaddafi. But the administration’s multilateral strategy has made these possibilities more complicated than they might have been.

As for arming the rebels, Paragraph 9 of U.N. Resolution 1970 (adopted in February) establishes an arms embargo for the “Libyan Arab Jamahiriya.” It prohibits all military support to anyone in Libya, including the rebels, unless approved by the Sanctions Committee (which the resolution set up). The U.S. has argued that, since the Security Council later authorized – in resolution 1973 (adopted in March) — “all necessary measures” to protect civilians in Libya “notwithstanding paragraph 9,” it would be permissible to provide arms to the rebels. But other nations, including the United Kingdom, disagree with that interpretation. Dispute over this issue belies consensus and undermines the legitimacy argument.

Alternatively, can someone orchestrate an escape route for Qaddafi? Resolution 1970 referred the situation in Libya to the International Criminal Court. Only the ICC can now decide whether criminal investigations and trials are justified for actions in Libya. A political settlement cannot be forced on the ICC. Thus, the threat of an ICC investigation hangs over Qaddafi wherever he may go. Qaddafi himself criticized the precedent set when Nigeria, in the face of international pressure, broke its “retirement” deal with former Liberian despot Charles Taylor and turned him over to the Special Court for Sierra Leone. This possibility will, no doubt, factor heavily in his deliberations over any escape-route offer.

Multilateralism can be a valuable foreign-policy tool. But the Obama administration too often mistakes the tool for an end in itself. The administration must recognize the limitations of international cooperation. If the U.S. places too great an emphasis on operating through the U.N. or gaining U.N. approval before taking action to defend our interests, we hand “spoiler” nations the means to frustrate our efforts. This strategy can also inadvertently create complications down the road.

Yes, the U.S. should be open to working through the U.N. and other international organizations to address joint concerns. But we must recognize that going through the U.N. will also result in fewer options and less freedom to adjust strategy. When key interests are at stake, the United States must not allow solutions to be held hostage by an irrational obeisance to the idea of “international legitimacy,” a notion that often dissipates when the real world fails to follow the preset script.

— Brett Schaefer is the Heritage Foundation’s Jay Kingham Fellow in International Regulatory Affairs.


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