Why Obama’s Libya war coalition is the smallest in decades

Why Obama’s Libya war coalition is the smallest in decades

President Barack Obama has touted his emphasis on multilateralism in the U.S. military intervention in Libya, but, for political, operational, and legal reasons, Obama’s "coalition of the willing" is smaller than any major multilateral operation since the end of the Cold War.

The Cable compiled a chart listing all the countries that contributed at least some military assets to the five major military operations in which the United States participated in a coalition during the last 20 years: the 1991 Gulf War (32 countries participating), the 1995 Bosnia mission (24 countries), the 1999 Kosovo mission (19 countries), the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan (48 countries), and the 2003 invasion of Iraq (40 countries), at the height of the size of each coalition. As of today, only 15 countries, including the United States, have committed to providing a military contribution to the Libya war.

Experts quickly point out that all of these military interventions happened in different contexts. However, they added that the reason Obama’s Libya war coalition has less international involvement than all the others was also due to his administration’s behavior in the lead-up to the war, its approach to multilateralism, the speed with which it was put together, and the justifications for the war itself.

Michael O’Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, said that the administration’s effort to build the coalition was hampered by its stated desire to hand off the leadership of the Libya intervention to NATO.  

"[I]f you [focus on the handoff], you don’t deserve a lot of credit for leadership," he said. "Obama in his deference to [getting out of the lead] has not only wanted other countries to do as much as they could, he has essentially forgone his responsibility to build the coalition."

The Libya mission is, by definition, smaller in scale than Iraq or Afghanistan; and a no-fly zone doesn’t require as many countries as a full-on invasion, O’Hanlon pointed out. However, the relatively few Arab countries contributing military assets could pose a problem for the mission’s legitimacy.

Operation Odyssey Dawn now has three Muslim countries with actual military contributions –Qatar, Turkey, and the UAE. "The limits of Arab support are palpable and could be a growing concern in the days and weeks ahead," O’Hanlon said.

While the Libya intervention was endorsed by the Arab League, the endorsement doesn’t actually require any Arab countries to contribute materially to the effort, said David Bosco, assistant professor at American University and author of FP’s blog The Multilateralist.

Obama put a priority on "formal multilateralism," as opposed to "operational multilateralism," concentrating on getting international political bodies to endorse the Libya attack before he focused on getting individual countries to pledge actual military contributions, Bosco said.  That’s why the administration, primarily the State Department, is working the phones now to ask countries such as the UAE to chip in a few planes here and there.

"At a certain point the administration is going to have to decide whether just to say this is a coalition of willing countries," said Bosco. "That’s not the end of the world."

Bosco also said Obama was practicing "a la carte multilateralism" by trumpeting the endorsement of certain regional international organizations, such as the Arab League, while dismissing the opinions of other groups, such as the African Union, which strongly opposed the intervention.

"There’s a legitimacy shopping exercise that’s going on here," Bosco said.

Wayne White, a former senior State Department intelligence official now with the Middle East Institute, noted that another problem with the Obama administration’s efforts to build a coalition was its own apparent lack of enthusiasm about the war. It was keenly aware of the war-weary U.S. populace, concerned about the burden of its strategic commitments in Iraq and Afghanistan, and unsure how this would play out in an extremely competitive and divisive election next year, White said.

"They were profoundly conflicted internally whether to do this, let alone to lead, which is quite unique," he said.

Obama administration officials have argued that the speed of international action on Libya was much faster than any previous intervention, and that the process was driven by the need to avert a potentially imminent humanitarian disaster.

"I know that the nightly news cannot cover a humanitarian crisis that thankfully did not happen, but it is important to remember that many, many Libyans are safer today because the international community took action," Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said on Wednesday.