Politics & Policy

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.

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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