Multilateralism Obama style

It is such a comfort to know in a world of change, some things can still be relied upon. Like the irritating behavior of France. President Nicolas Sarkozy is reported to have refused to approve NATO military plans for operations in Libya until leaders were assembled in Paris -- and then launched French aircraft sans coordination with allies.

Even with its false start, France did not get the honor of commencing operations. The United States, which the president tells us is not leading this operation, did. Of the 130 cruise missiles fired to commence operations, nearly all were American. American's flew half of the 80 air sorties yesterday. Sticker price to the American taxpayer: likely several billion dollars; it was over $100 million for the first day's missiles alone. The British are the only country that has invested enough in their own defense to have the ability to participate in the opening salvo of cruise missiles.

President Obama's plan is to have the U.S. do the initial work that had to be done fast to prevent Gaddafi overrunning Benghazi and that required precision and risk the U.S. military is uniquely proficient at, then transition the operation to command by countries that will be patrolling the skies over Libya for the indefinite future.

But there is still no agreement to whom command will be passed. British Prime Minister Cameron insists it must be NATO; Sarkozy insists not. The French defense spokesman now suggests all participating military forces should have the honor of serving under French national command. Turkish Defense Minister expressed mystification, saying "It does not seem quite possible for us to understand France's being so much at the forefront in this action." Italian Foreign Minister Frattini threatens Italy will not allow use of its bases unless it becomes a NATO operation. The French and German ambassadors walked out yesterday after criticism by the NATO Secretary General of France for unilateralism and Germany for not participating.

Turkey's Prime Minister has objected to using force against Qaddafi, and was excluded from the Paris meetings over the weekend. Yesterday the Turkish Foreign Minister said, "there is a certain procedure under international law for the formation of such coalitions. We do not believe that this procedure was sufficiently observed."  It's a pretty safe bet that Turkey will veto a direct NATO role.

To their credit, the Administration was able to convince a Muslim country, Qatar, to send a token six airplanes. But they have not done appreciably better than the Bush Administration, which even without a UN Security Council resolution gathered 56 (mostly token) force contributing countries for the invasion of Iraq. 

The State Department responded to questions about the dearth of Arab participation with "we believe we have Arab support...we need to let this process play out." Arab League Secretary General Amir Moussa called for a special meeting of the Arab League to discuss civilian casualties inflicted by our airstrikes. The German Foreign Minister has said the Arab League's criticism justifies Germany having abstained from supporting the U.N. resolution. 

This is what comes from a lack of leadership by the United States. The medium powers squabble, and we do most of the work. Building a coalition requires a much more solid understanding of objectives, roles and responsibilities than President Obama launched this war having. The time of American leverage to work out these details was before we undertook the work France wanted to take credit for us doing and the Arab League was willing to support. Unfortunately, at that time the Obama administration remained opposed to the military operations they are now engaged in.

TIM SLOAN/AFP/Getty Images

Shadow Government

How to Win Afghanistan? Nation Building.

General David Petraeus, Commander of the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan, told Congress this week "I am concerned that funding for our State Department and USAID partners will not sufficiently enable them to build on the hard-fought security achievements of our men and women in uniform.  Inadequate resourcing of our civilian partners could, in fact, jeopardize accomplishment of the overall mission."

Congressional testimony is usually bland and does not often contain any real news.  Petraeus' remarks mostly wrote themselves:  he started by announcing that the Taliban's momentum "has been arrested," but progress is "fragile and reversible."  You might as well say "Progress Made, Challenges Remain."  Nothing new here.

But then Petraeus came out with that bombshell about funding for civilians near the end of his testimony.  He could not have been more stark.  We will lose the war in Afghanistan unless we pony up more money for our civilian efforts-which is to say, for nation building.

Nation building, as I've argued earlier, is not international charity.  It is not a superfluous and dispensable exercise in appeasing western guilt, an expensive tribute to humanitarianism, or an act of unvarnished selflessness and goodwill.  Nation building is a response to the threat of failed states that threaten regional stability.  It is a pragmatic exercise of hard power to protect vital national interests.  In the context of Afghanistan, nation building is the civilian side of counterinsurgency, the primary objective of which is to "foster the development of effective governance by a legitimate government," according to the Counterinsurgency Field Manual Petraeus wrote.

Afghanistan's weakness threatens America's security.  State failure, chaos, or Taliban rule in Afghanistan will provide a safe haven for al-Qaida, destabilize western Pakistan and endanger its nuclear weapons, become a worldwide headquarters for narcotics traffickers, discredit NATO, invite Iranian and Russian adventurism, and sully self-government and civil liberties in the Muslim world.  We must rebuild Afghanistan to prevent these catastrophic outcomes.

There are no practical alternatives.  Vice President Biden and a growing chorus of others believe we should give up rebuilding Afghanistan and, instead, sustain an indefinite worldwide assassination campaign against al Qaida's senior leaders.  His view of the war is myopic, narrow, and troubling.  Such a campaign would do nothing to address Pakistan, the drug trade, NATO, the other great powers, or any of our other interests across South Asia.  It is also morally troubling -- it amounts to a declaration that we reserve the right to kill anyone we deem to be a terrorist, anywhere in the world, forever.  Call it the Biden Doctrine of the Forever War.  States should not maintain a state of war indefinitely just because it is too inconvenient to settle the political conditions that led to the war in the first place.  War should be the last resort, not the first.

Nation building in Afghanistan is the only pragmatic policy option that will secure the full range of our interests in South Asia and yield an actual end-point to the war, which is why Petraeus is right to be alarmed about the funding levels for our civilians.  They are the ones who are acting as embedded advisors to Afghan ministers; helping set up local dispute-resolution councils in provinces and districts; dispensing funds for Afghans to build roads, schools, and hospitals; training Afghans on electric power plant maintenance; and helping cut deals between rival Afghan politicians in Kabul.  These things are, in fact, vital war aims because they help create stability in Afghanistan and, thus, South Asia.  Under-funding these efforts amounts to trying to kill our way out of the insurgency, which we all know is impossible. 

Plenty of critics challenge this assessment on the grounds that it can't be done-because nation building is impossible, because Afghanistan is ungovernable, because we've already lost, because Karzai is corrupt and illegitimate, because the Afghans are invincible warriors who will inevitably defeat any foreigners, etc.  I've responded to most of these objections elsewhere (see here, here, and here for starters).  I might also invoke the ethos of the Seabees in World War II:  "the difficult we do immediately.  The impossible takes a little longer."  No one said rebuilding Afghanistan would be easy; but foreign policy isn't supposed to be easy.  If it were, we'd have world peace by now.

Finally, there is another reason to stick it out in Afghanistan, a reason that is often overlooked or simply discounted by critics.  Helping the Afghans is the right thing to do.  Afghanistan was the worst country on earth in 2001.  We dithered about for the better part of a decade before coming to our senses around 2007-8 and started putting out even a half-hearted effort.  If today we can do no better than to walk away and leave the place a shambles, it will be a national disgrace.  The Afghans deserve better.