For years, liberals enjoyed blasting Pres. George W. Bush’s “coalition of the willing,” the 49 countries he assembled before launching the war in Iraq. Despite the number of countries, these critics disparaged Bush as acting “unilaterally” — because England and Australia, with their thousands of soldiers and immense sacrifice, just didn’t count. Sure, the 43rd president went to the United Nations, but he didn’t get much credit for that, either. “How dare a president of the United States wage a war without France’s approval?” was the resounding chorus from a U.N.-enamored Left.
So it wasn’t too surprising then when President Obama decided to intervene in Libya a few months ago that the White House advertised the multilateral coalition as one of the selling points of the war — inasmuch as the administration even bothered to sell the war at all. This isn’t Iraq, Obama said, desperately trying to distance himself from the dreaded unilateralism of the Bush administration. The U.N. agrees. NATO agrees. The Arab League agrees. Obama and his liberal brain trust declared: We don’t even need to check with Congress, or, for that matter, the American public. We’re multilateral, and proud of it. France, after all, said this war was okay.
Where has all that multilateralism gotten us? Probably where multiculturalism got England and Germany — nowhere. Six months in, the war has reached a stalemate. France, once the gung-ho supporter leading the charge for intervention, is signaling it would like Qaddafi to stay. Italy is also making moves to quietly back away, if they were ever even on board in the first place. John Rosenthal makes a strong case that Italy never supported intervention in Libya, contrary to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s claim otherwise. England is following suit. The Arab League quickly returned to criticizing the West. The U.N. vote authorizing action had five major abstentions — Brazil, India, China, Russia, Germany — a suggestion that it wasn’t as multilateral as advertised. The stress of the war has revealed how fragile NATO has become. Congress openly revolted against Obama’s Libya “intervention” — we mustn’t, after all, call it war, Obama says. It’s still not popular among voters. We’ve repeatedly stated Qaddafi must go, but that’s far from certain at this point.
And as the Libyan mission falters, with the potential for it to spiral into a brutal civil war, who is going to get the blame? Or, more important, who is going to look weak? France? Italy? The Italian and French reputations for weakness were set in stone a half-century ago, and it appears that Obama would like to join them in perpetual retreat.
Multilateralism for the sake of multilateralism isn’t a strategy; it’s a dangerous delusion. When George H. W. Bush removed Saddam Hussein from Kuwait, he assembled a multilateral coalition with a very clear goal — and he knew America was the country to lead it. The decision to invade Iraq is open to fair criticism, but George W. Bush’s ability to win the war — when he decided to surge U.S. forces there in 2007 — was possible only because of his unilateral tendencies. (Remember, the U.N. surged for the exits as soon as Iraq got dangerous — showing great humanitarian concern for the Iraqi people.)
The steep decline in security in Afghanistan, in fact, occurred right after the U.S. let NATO take over in 2005, according to military and diplomatic officials who oversaw the change in command. By the time the Americans took back the control of the war, it was too late. This led to the sadly comic spectacle of American generals’ begging for an extra 20 Danish troops, just to appear multilateral, while privately fuming about how the Dutch could work only 40 hours a week in a war zone. Our mission in Libya — perpetually vague as it is — has given us another stellar case study in multilateralism.