Over the past two years Barack Obama has presented his vision of American leadership under the paradigm of multilateralism. By contrast, the Bush administration’s foreign policy strategies were conducted more unilaterally. Addressing the U.N. General Assembly in 2009, Obama urged, “Those who used to chastise America for acting alone in the world cannot now stand by and wait for America to solve the world’s problems alone.” Obama has consistently pursued multilateral coalitions to solve collective problems whether in Iran or Libya.
Obama’s multilateral approach to global problems evolved as a result of the 2003 Iraq War. The U.S. invaded Iraq along with a “coalition of the willing.” British, Polish and other nations played an important role but it was U.S. troops who faced the most risk and the United States covered most of the costs. This unilateral approach to Iraq caused many nations to question the global role that the U.S. was assuming. In the recent past, when the U.S. has been forced or encouraged to confront international problems, building international consensus strengthened its position as in the case of the 1991 Gulf War and the NATO bombings of Serbs in order to halt ethnic genocide. Multilateralism affords less blowback and lessens the chances that if situations go awry the U.S. would not be held wholly responsible.
The danger is that in the process of building consensus and international coalitions the U.S. can be seen as uncertain and unprepared. For the U.S. to shoulder a significant portion of the costs associated with monitoring the Libyan skies 24-hours a day would be a tremendous burden for American fighter pilots and its overburdened military forces. Because the no-fly zone is a coalition effort, French and British pilots are currently conducting a majority of the flights over Libya.
The U.S. Navy has launched well over a hundred cruise missiles at Libyan air defense sites. By comparison, the British launched an insignificant number. In the opening salvos of the air campaign it was U.S. AFRICOM that directed the coalition efforts while the French and British played a support role. NATO has recently announced that it was assuming control of the mission over Libya with the U.S. acting in a support role. However, the U.S. continues to bear a significant amount of the costs associated with the no-fly zone and strategic attacks against Qaddafi’s forces.
British and French militaries, although well armed and technologically capable, do not posses the same operational capabilities to monitor Qaddafi’s pro-government forces. American AWACS and Navy ships will provide the needed command and control capabilities.
The coalition was afforded a limited window of opportunity during which to act in order to constrain Qaddafi’s military advances. For several weeks the rebels had made progress against pro-government forces and instead of immediately acting to support these tenuous gains, the U.S., France and the U.K. decided to pursue building an international consensus on Libya rather than intervening without broad international support.
Whether the U.S., France and the U.K. had acted several weeks earlier or waited for a U.N. resolution, the result would have been the same. Military strikes against the Qaddafi regime continue although only the air strikes have been approved by a U.N. resolution. The pursuit of consensus perhaps was the best gift that could have been presented to Qaddafi. While the Obama, Cameron and Sarkozy administrations’ deliberated, Qaddafi’s forces were afforded time to regroup and make significant military progress. Keith Koffler writes in Politico, “One critical mistake by Obama was not acting while the rebels had Muammar Qadhafi literally out in the rain — a month before the allies started bombing his forces and clearing the sky. If President George W. Bush was ‘The Decider,’ Obama is ‘The Deliberator.”
While the Obama administration was eventually successful in building consensus around a U.N. resolution, this effort took a considerable amount of time. This approach in the near term has simply allowed a quid pro quo situation to develop where Qaddafi’s regime has now essentially dug in and short of direct military action it is unlikely that Qaddafi will be overthrown. Multilateralism is effective when swift and decisive decisions are made to achieve a military victory or other established goals.
A multilateral approach could very well hamstring the coalition efforts in Libya. The current coalition against Qaddafi is proving to be fraught with difficulties. In any coalition different actors pursue different visions and end goals. NATO, while an important global player, is comprised of heterogeneous states with different goals in Libya. The goals of the French diverge significantly from those of the Turks and vice versa.
Writing in the New York Times, David Brooks makes the point, “multilateral efforts are marked by opaque decision-making and strategic vagueness. It is hard to get leaders from different nations with different values to agree on a common course of action. When diplomats do achieve this, it is usually because they have arrived at artful fudges that allow leaders from different countries to read the same words in a U.N. resolution and understand them in different ways. The negotiation process to arrive at these fudges involves a long chain of secret discussions and it necessarily involves eliding issues that might blow everything up.”
The pursuit of consensus over military actions has created an air of confusion about the end goals of the mission. David Cameron, Nicolas Sarkozy and Barack Obama offered competing visions of the coalition goals. While protecting civilians was the often-stated purpose, confusion emerged pertaining to ancillary objectives like how far to disable Qaddafi’s military and whether to arm rebel groups. David Brooks writes, “Sure enough, the decision-making process that led to the Libyan intervention was remarkably opaque. (It is still not clear why the Obama administration flipped from skepticism to resolve.) More important, the nations have not really defined what they hope to achieve.”
When Qaddafi’s compound was recently targeted by cruise missiles many wondered whether the dictator himself was being targeted. Since military operations began the U.S. and others have failed to offer a definition as to what the end goals are and if they are attained what will a new Libya resemble. Most importantly, the coalition has failed to convey to their publics what will happen if the current military operations fail. Are France, the U.S. and the U.K. willing to monitor the Libyan skies for the next decade? Politically, Obama’s pursuit of international consensus on Libya has not silenced critics in the U.S.
Since Obama announced that, “Colonel Qaddafi needs to step down from power” the president has sent a continuing stream of mixed messages. At times he seemed to convey the view that Libya did not constitute an area that was in America’s national interest and that he was intent on not involving the U.S. in the region. His about face in support of intervention can be attributed to the fact that multilateralism offered the president political cover if intervention failed.
In an effort to explain his actions, Obama will address the nation from the National Defense University on Monday, March 29th. Whether or not the president can satisfactorily answer many overriding questions about U.S. end goals in Libya remains to be seen.
The importance of Obama’s pursuit of multilateralism is that he embraces it in order to minimize risks. Unilateral U.S. intervention in Libya could have essentially achieved the same goals and objectives that are being achieved with multilateral intervention. One can speculate that had the U.S. acted unilaterally in Libya with the assistance of one or two partners a few weeks ago, Qaddafi’s chances of remaining in power would have been greatly diminished. Multilateralism is only effective if pursued realistically and in crises situations expediently. In an international system filled with competing interests and heterogeneous states it is important for the U.S. to pursue broad coalitions before acting.
However, if the U.S. military is inevitably going to intervene and lead any coalition efforts it is advantageous to do so when substantive results can be insured. In the case of Libya, it is apparently clear that waiting for international consensus hamstrung the ability of the U.S. to act when it could have made a difference.