Why is Obama giving Libya to the Russians? John Bolton poses the question in an Op-Ed so filled with exasperation you can almost hear Bolton scream as you read it. Let me venture a possible answer to Bolton’s question. Obama is giving Libya to the Russians because he doesn’t want to commit American troops to a messy and protracted post-war occupation, and he knows that NATO won’t send troops either — at least not in the numbers or with the tenacity required to get the job done.
Have a look at this piece on the scant planning for a post-Qaddafi Libya. There we learn that a violent post-conflict mess is a very real possibility, that there is no clear source of forces sufficient to police the reconstruction process, and that the U.S. and Britain have already said they won’t do it. So might Obama’s willingness to risk extending Russian influence by handing it a major mediating role have something to do with our own unwillingness to manage a post-war Libya?
Have Obama and the Europeans, after chiding President Bush for a poorly planned occupation in Iraq, made the same mistake in Libya? Or perhaps help from Russia is the plan? Or do these amount to much the same thing?
It’s hard for many to believe that Obama entered Libya chiefly to buck up utopian international-law precedents like “Responsibility to Protect” (R2P). But that, and an effort to get on the good side of Egypt’s young secular protestors (I won’t say “secular liberal,” since they’re a whole lot less liberal than advertized), is in fact why Obama went in. Obama’s willingness to cede so much to the Russians reflects the fact that he is far less interested in achieving and enforcing regime change in Libya than in using this intervention to advance the utopian plans of his hyper-internationalist advisers. As Douglas J. Feith and Seth Cropsey put it in their important article on the Obama Doctrine, the president “cares more about restraining America than about accomplishing any particular result in Libya.” Wouldn’t that answer Bolton’s question?
That is, Obama may be willing to cede Russia substantial de facto control over Libyan oil and gas resources as the price for Russian cooperation in authorizing and organizing a post-war U.N. peacekeeping force. That would simultaneously bolster the development of a post-American world order — with an R2P-enforcing U.N. exercising a larger military role — and exempt Obama from having to send in U.S. troops. The only drawback would be the substantial enhancement of Russia’s strategic position, i.e. the heightening of its ability to use its control of oil and gas resources to bully the Europeans. But again, Obama is less concerned about those sorts of strategic considerations than about advancing the vision of a world policed by a U.N. freed of U.S. domination.
The moral of the story is that an intervention with little potential payoff for U.S. interests should never have been undertaken in the first place, especially at a time of resource overstretch. But that sort of reasoning wouldn’t be persuasive to someone who’d pushed beyond the same old, narrow, boring, stick-in-the-mud vision of American interests abroad that U.S. presidents have held for the last seven decades.