Shadow Government

Does Obama's gamble make sense?

The Obama administration's decision to support a tough UNSCR on Libya at the very last minute has left me flummoxed. For weeks the administration has been talking down the various military options that now seem imminent. 

The administration claimed that it was illegal to arm the Libyan rebels, but it now appears that they quietly encouraged Egypt to commit this allegedly illegal act. The administration talked down a no-fly zone back when the rebels were strong and the moral and material support of a no-fly zone might have been decisive. Now they have joined in authorizing a much tougher no-drive zone that could involve substantially more air-strikes and associated collateral damage.

Throughout, the president has let others in the administration do the talking on Libya, and most of their talking has been negative. It has been widely reported that two of his principal national security advisors, NSA Donilon and Defense Secretary Gates, have strongly opposed military action. The administration as a whole has let others make the case for military action. And the administration has done little (the president, even less) to mobilize the public and Congress to support U.S. intervention.

How can this make sense? I see two possibilities.

Perhaps the Obama administration has cleverly figured out a way to bring about the neoisolationist fantasy of the 1990s: making the rest of the world shoulder the load of global policeman. Many of the critiques of U.S. military intervention over the past twenty years have been critiques of U.S. involvement, not military intervention, per se. The cases in Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, Kosovo, and so on were deemed not to be in our interest. Perhaps they required military intervention, but let someone else bear the costs.

The Bush 41 and Clinton administrations tried this, but were never able to get the rest of the world to handle matters satisfactorily. The United States was "indispensable," Clinton's Secretary of State Madeleine Albright concluded. If we did not lead and shoulder the leader's load it would not get done, whatever it was that needed doing (the East Timor exception that proved the rule notwithstanding).

In Libya, the Obama administration followed the old Bush-Clinton playbook, but stuck with it much longer. For weeks, nothing much happened. Hawks bemoaned the fecklessness. Doves praised the "strategic reticence." And Qaddafi steadily slaughtered the rebels.

Finally, the French and British couldn't take it anymore and, just before the rebels couldn't take it anymore, forced through the Chapter VII UNSCR that made military intervention imminent.

But intervention by whom? What if the Obama plan is to only do the easy bits (command and control, refueling and other logistics, overhead intelligence) and let the others do all the hard bits, including all the bits that are likely to lead to unwanted casualties, terrorist reprisals, and the like? What if his plan is to let the Europeans figure their own way out if things go badly?

If that was the plan, the last thing you would do if you were president would be to take ownership for this war by mobilizing public and congressional support. You would move on to other matters of state -- long-planned regional summits, for example -- and wish your allies well.

If things go well (which your national security team has led you to rather doubt), you can afford to let the others bask in the glory. If things go poorly, it will be clear that you had doubts from the beginning but you were just being a good multilateralist and letting others do what they felt it necessary to do.

I am not saying this is the right thing for a president to do. I am saying that this would make everything that we have seen more plausible.

Or perhaps the last few weeks don't make sense. It may be that the Obama administration is willing to commit U.S. forces despite not preparing the public or the Congress for what would be the third major military attack on a Muslim country since 9/11 (something even the Bush administration shrank from doing). There is some evidence that the administration does, in fact, envision major U.S. involvement.

If so, they have their political work cut out for them. They must provide a rigorous rebuttal of the critics who have opposed military intervention (starting with the senior members of their own national security team). They must secure congressional buy-in (the Bush administration sought congressional authorization before going for U.N. authorization in Iraq -- the Obama administration will have to do it the other way around). And they must mobilize public support.

Check that: the president must mobilize public support. If President Obama is committing U.S. forces (and prestige and resources) to this fight, he must also commit himself to leading the American public.

I think it would be folly for him to do what he has done in Afghanistan: mount a major escalation while doing essentially nothing to mobilize public support for that escalation. In Afghanistan, the president appears to have bet that political inertia would prop up public support long enough for the surge to work -- and perhaps that bet was reasonable given the long commitment already in place to Afghanistan, and his own campaign rhetoric about a "necessary war." I don't think that same bet is reasonable on Libya.

I suppose there is a third option. Perhaps the administration is extremely lucky. Perhaps the mere threats laid out in the UNSCR will be enough to tip the balance in Libya. The earliest signs give reason to hope.

Viewing the alternatives, I think the lucky option is the best one available.

Shadow Government

What we learned from the Security Council debate over Libya

"We have often seen in our contemporary history that the weakness of democracies leaves the field open to dictatorships."

-French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe, Mar. 16, 2011

Yesterday the United Nations Security Council voted to authorize military intervention to protect the Libyan people from the depredations of Colonel Qaddafi's rule. What have we learned from the debate over the resolution and its outcome?

(1) The international system doesn't work in the absence of U.S. leadership.  It was only the near 180-degree shift in the Obama administration's position on a no-fly and no-drive zone in Libya -- in the face of what was shaping up to be a massacre by Libyan government forces in Benghazi and strong pressure for urgent intervention from Britain, France, and the Arab League -- that made the UNSC vote possible. For weeks, President Obama has judged the risks of action in Libya to be greater than the risks of inaction -- with the effect that the United States ended up sitting on the sidelines. But the White House belatedly realized that American inaction was the greater risk to the national interest.

In the meantime, by choosing to stand aside during the early, critical stage of the Libyan uprising, the U.S. implicitly endorsed the status quo and allowed Qaddafi to regain the initiative. Washington also unwittingly signaled to other contested regimes in Bahrain and Yemen that they had a choice to avoid the "Mubarak option" of ceding to the will of the people -- by shooting them -- without risking their U.S. ties. Lesson: America still has the unique power to manage unfolding international crises, which are essentially unmanageable when Washington sits on the sidelines -- and a U.S. decision not to intervene is as much a strategic choice as the decision to do so.

(2) The world's rising democracies need to decide whose side they are on.  Developing democracies Colombia, South Africa, and Nigeria supported the Council resolution on intervention in Libya. Brazil and India did not. Great powers have to make choices in international affairs -- it's what makes them great powers. India's abstention in the Libya vote disappoints its many American friends who supported President Obama's call last November for a permanent Indian seat on the Security Council. India's current two-year UNSC rotation was always going to be a litmus test of New Delhi's ability to be a constructive player at the high table of world politics, from which India was excluded for 60 years.  

It is ironic that India -- which intervened in what was then East Pakistan in 1971 to prevent a civilian bloodbath in Bangladesh's independence struggle, intervened in Sri Lanka in 1987 for similar reasons, and has played a critical role supporting democratic solutions to civil conflicts in Nepal, Afghanistan, and elsewhere -- decided that the same values of democracy and human rights that govern its own society are not for New Delhi to protect and advance elsewhere. The same goes for Brazil. Do these giant democracies really think their interests will be better served in a world in which leaders have an absolute right to slaughter their people -- a world in which an archaic notion of "non-intervention" precludes any active defense of the same universal values that underlie the Indian and Brazilian miracles?

(3) The Responsibility to Protect is no longer a Western concept. The Arab League's urging of international military intervention in Libya to protect the Libyan people was a historic departure from the norms of sovereignty embraced for decades by Arab strongmen. In the explicit judgment of (largely unelected) Arab League leaders, Qaddafi forfeited his claims to sovereignty over Libya by virtue of his treatment of the Libyan people. This is a more progressive, and enlightened, standard for the universal protection of the basic rights of humankind than that embraced by some of the world's developed democracies. 

Should such a principle strengthen as a pillar of international society, history will clearly not be on the side of Sinocentric autocracy or other forms of authoritarian rule; indeed, it may not be either China or the West but key players in the developing world who shape a new understanding of the limits of sovereignty under international law in a way that tilts the international system more firmly towards freedom. Going back to Point 2, one would imagine that India, Brazil, and for that matter Germany would want to be on the right side of this evolving debate.

(4) U.N. Security Council candidacy has a corrosive effect on countries' willingness to stand up for what they believe in. Three of the four countries aspiring to UNSC membership and currently sitting on the Council -- Germany, India, and Brazil -- abstained from the vote on Libya (South Africa, the fourth, voted for it). Their officials appear to believe that being true to their values and voting with their more natural democratic allies on the Council could complicate their ability to secure Chinese and Russian support for their permanent membership aspirations. While this may be true, the opposite logic should equally apply. Their failure to vote with their natural allies by standing up for the same basic rights for the Libyan people that Germans, Indians, and Brazilians enjoy could complicate American, French, and British support for their quest for a permanent seat on the Security Council. 

(5)   France may be America's natural ally in Europe. It goes without saying that the relationship with Britain will always be special, and that British and American interests in world affairs will continue to closely align. The surprise in the Libyan debate is how forcefully France has demanded justice for the Libyan people and assertive action against their oppressors. In fact, France's pedigree as a country with significant military capabilities that is quite comfortable wielding them overseas makes it a more comfortable partner for the United States than conventional wisdom would suggest. Forgotten in the emotional debate over the Iraq war were concrete French offers to form a substantial part of the military invasion force in 2003 if only Washington would give the U.N. process a bit more time. As French Gaullism gives way to closer military and intelligence cooperation at NATO -- whose military structures France rejoined in 2009 -- and bilaterally with Washington, a natural entente should continue to consolidate between the United States and the country whose people showed the world, in 1789, that the droits de l'homme are the gift of no ruler but the prerogative of humankind.