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.
Here’s the dirty secret: The Europeans don’t want to be in the lead. They want the U.S. to foot the bill. They want the U.S. to keep subsidizing their security. They want to be able to blame the U.S. for the military adventures they go on — I agree war is très horrible, but we had to go for the stupid Americans! Ciao! Like Obama, the Europeans love multilateralism because it allows everyone to avoid any responsibility. I’m sure when the cadre of Brussels-based bureaucrats we’ve handed our foreign policy over to heard how an Obama adviser described the president’s style of command — “leading from behind,” the infamous quote from a recent New Yorker story — they were terrified. There’s only so much room behind a desk to cower, and certainly there was no more space left for an American president.
I was skeptical of the intervention in Libya — not only did it appear to be an unnecessary expenditure while we still had two other wars going on, but I knew the White House’s confidence in NATO and the U.N. was misplaced. It seems that over time Qaddafi might lose power — but if that happens, who do we expect is going to prevent the country from imploding? The U.N.? The African Union? What country is going to step up and take the lead? It’s not going to be us. But it might as well be, because everyone — the Libyans, the Europeans, the U.N. — is going to say we’ve shirked our responsibility. And they’d be right. The White House has put a new twist on Colin Powell’s famous “Pottery Barn rule” (you break it, you buy it, he said in regard to Iraq). Today, if you break it, make sure you get out of the store, quick. Then blame Sarkozy.
The Arab Spring should be a historic opportunity for America to invest in democracy — by supporting NGOs and political institutions to lead the transition to democracy, and focusing on building economic prosperity. Instead, we’ve invested in an inept no-fly-zone bombing campaign that just isn’t going to get us there.
— Elise Jordan is a New York–based writer and commentator. She served as a director for communications in the National Security Council in 2008–09 and was a speechwriter for Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.