Neither unilateralist nor multilateralist

Business Times - 25 Mar 2011

Neither unilateralist nor multilateralist

Mr Obama's policy on Libya is confusing and self-defeating, and will satisfy no one


US PRESIDENT Barack Obama and his foreign policy aides have been insisting that, unlike president George W Bush who had launched a unilateral attack against Iraq, the current military operation in Libya is being conducted under a multilateral setting. And, indeed, while the Bush administration failed to win the support of the majority of the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council for his plan to invade Iraq and depose its leader Saddam Hussein, the more limited goal of the enforcing a No-Fly Zone (NFZ) in Libya has been backed by the Security Council.

Moreover, the military action against the regime of Muammar Gaddafi is not only supported by two leading allies of the US - France and Britain - but has also been given the green light by the Arab League.

And, in fact, demonstrating the multilateral nature of the attacks against Col Gaddafi, France and Britain are expected to play the leading role while the US takes on a limited and supporting role, according to Mr Obama.

Friendly enabler

Indeed, Obama administration officials have taken to highlighting the non-Bush-style multilateralist nature of the military campaign in Libya that has created the impression that the US is only playing the role of a friendly enabler in the process.

Hence, while US planes were attacking troops and military installations in Libya, Mr Obama went ahead with his scheduled trip to Brazil and Chile, while Defense Secretary Robert Gates flew to Moscow for meetings with Russian officials. Mr Obama has also refrained from asking Congress to support his decision to go to what he seems to be marketing to the lawmakers and the American public as a not-really-a-war that, in any case, is not led by the US.

But there are several problems with the 'multilateral' pose of the Obama administration. First, policies being pursued by a multilateral institution constitute the sum of the policy decisions made by its members; and when it comes to military actions, the powerful members of the institutions. Or to paraphrase the slogan of the American National Rifle Association ('It is not guns that kill people; it is people who kill people'), it is not multilateral institutions that go to war; it is governments who make that decision.'

And for most of the post-World War II era, it was the US as the hegemonic power in the Western alliance that has made it possible to bring about the kind of collective military action under which its military allies were willing to contribute troops and financial resources. The first Gulf War was the most dramatic demonstration of such multilateral military operations led by the US in the post-Cold War era.

And former president George WH Bush (Bush the first) did bring on board then not only Nato and Japan, but also several Arab governments, and other military allies who ended up making a serious contribution to the first military operation against Saddam Hussein.

But it was US leadership and massive military machine that had made the difference then as well as in the military campaigns against Serbia during the wars in the Balkans. For better or for worst, multilateralism in all these cases meant that the US had the political will and the power to lead these collective actions - that, in essence, seemed to accord with core US national interest (although many Americans had challenged that assumption during the attacks on Serbia).

That Bush the second decided to take unilateral military action against Iraq had nothing to do with his disdain for the UN and for Old Europe. He moved in a unilateral direction because he couldn't win support from the Security Council and from other leading military powers - with the exception of Britain and Australia.

The reason they refused to jump on board was that most of their governments concluded that invading Iraq would run contrary to their respective national interest. At the same time, the second Bush administration lacked the diplomatic and military leverage to get these governments to join the campaign for 'regime change' in Baghdad.

But to be fair to Mr Obama's predecessor, while he was lobbying for the support of other governments for taking action against Iraq, he didn't pretend that he was going to re-enforce the NFZ in Iraq or to further isolate Saddam Hussein. It was clear that he was planning to invade Iraq.

Mr Obama, on the other hand, seems to be trying to be play it both ways - committing the US to imposing an NFZ and to defending innocent civilians while at the same time, implying that he wants Libya's Col Gaddafi out, which sounds like . . . mmm . . . regime change?

And Mr Obama's attempt to downplay the military role that the US is playing in Libya while proposing that France and Britain are going to lead the military charge sounds a bit confusing to the American people who, according to opinion polls, are opposed to using of US military power to get rid of Col Gaddafi.

Indeed, Americans who are recovering from the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, trying to control out-of-control deficits, and fighting in two wars in the Middle East, are not ready to get sucked into a third quagmire in the Middle East. A recent Washington Post polls suggested that 64 per cent of Americans believe that the war in Afghanistan is not worth fighting. A Gallup poll indicated that 50 per cent of the public supports the notion that the US 'should mind its own business internationally and let other countries get along the best they can on their own'.

Strategic sense

The notion that Britain, France, Italy and the other southern European governments take the lead in dealing with the upheaval in Libya makes a lot of sense. After all, Libya is in their strategic backyard, occupying the same position that Mexico does vis-a-vis the US. Yet, notwithstanding Mr Obama's rhetoric, there is no sign that the Europeans are ready to play that role in or outside of Nato or to contribute the major share of the troops and money that would be required if and when it becomes clear that only the deployment of ground troops would make it possible to defeat Col Gaddafi and his supporters.

And members of the Arab League are already indicating that they might reconsider their support for the military operation in Libya if it goes beyond the establishment of an NFZ.

In a way, Mr Obama's initial reluctance to get the US military involved in Libya made more strategic sense than the current approach. Mr Obama's stance now fails to create enough incentives for the Europeans to assert their diplomatic and military power in the region while making it more likely that the US will end up being sucked into the conflict.

That represents neither unilateralism nor multilateralism. It's a confusing and self-defeating policy that will satisfy no one.

Copyright © 2010 Singapore Press Holdings Ltd. All rights reserved.


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