The Multilateralist

Wesley Clark rewrites history

Former NATO commander Wesley Clark entered the fray on the question of Libya intervention this weekend. He surveys the recent history of U.S. interventions and concludes that Libya doesn’t meet the threshold for action. While I’m sympathetic to his general argument, he’s confusing on several points, notably the issue of international authority. Clark’s essential argument ...

Former NATO commander Wesley Clark entered the fray on the question of Libya intervention this weekend. He surveys the recent history of U.S. interventions and concludes that Libya doesn't meet the threshold for action. While I'm sympathetic to his general argument, he's confusing on several points, notably the issue of international authority. Clark's essential argument is that intervention must have broad support and legal authority:

Offensive war is, in general, illegal. In the Persian Gulf War, Iraq’s actions in 1990 were a clear case of aggression; we obtained full U.N. support. We had a congressional resolution. And we enjoyed the overwhelming backing of our allies and Arab partners. They even paid most of the cost of Operation Desert Storm, to the tune of tens of billions of dollars. The resulting military action was widely hailed as a legitimate and moral victory. In 1999 in Kosovo, the United States and NATO had a humanitarian U.N. resolution backing our actions.

Clark starts from a sound premise of international law; that non-defensive uses of force normally require clear authorization from the UN Security Council. But his claim that Kosovo had such authorization is clearly wrong. True, there were a number of Council resolutions dealing with Kosovo but none authorized the use of force. Russia balked at that step, and the absence of legal authority almost fractured NATO unity on the operation (Germany was particularly hesitant to support action without the U.N.'s imprimatur).

Former NATO commander Wesley Clark entered the fray on the question of Libya intervention this weekend. He surveys the recent history of U.S. interventions and concludes that Libya doesn’t meet the threshold for action. While I’m sympathetic to his general argument, he’s confusing on several points, notably the issue of international authority. Clark’s essential argument is that intervention must have broad support and legal authority:

Offensive war is, in general, illegal. In the Persian Gulf War, Iraq’s actions in 1990 were a clear case of aggression; we obtained full U.N. support. We had a congressional resolution. And we enjoyed the overwhelming backing of our allies and Arab partners. They even paid most of the cost of Operation Desert Storm, to the tune of tens of billions of dollars. The resulting military action was widely hailed as a legitimate and moral victory. In 1999 in Kosovo, the United States and NATO had a humanitarian U.N. resolution backing our actions.

Clark starts from a sound premise of international law; that non-defensive uses of force normally require clear authorization from the UN Security Council. But his claim that Kosovo had such authorization is clearly wrong. True, there were a number of Council resolutions dealing with Kosovo but none authorized the use of force. Russia balked at that step, and the absence of legal authority almost fractured NATO unity on the operation (Germany was particularly hesitant to support action without the U.N.’s imprimatur).

The former general then goes on to contrast his revisionist legal history of the Kosovo operation with the current situation in Libya:

In Libya, Gaddafi has used and supported terrorism, murdered Americans, and repressed his people for 40 years. The American public may want to see him go. But his current actions aren’t an attack on the United States or any other country. On what basis would we seek congressional support and international authorization to intervene in a civil war? Do we have the endorsement of the Arab League? A U.N. Security Council resolution?

First, the United States at this moment has as much legal authority to intervene in Libya as NATO did in Kosovo, which is to say not much. Second, there’s no mystery about the basis on which the United States would seek international authority to intervene. It could do so on any number of grounds from humanitarian concern to democracy promotion to the possible threat to regional security. Clark acts as if the absence of such authority at this moment is itself a substantive argument against intervention. But international authorization does not spring magically from the Security Council. Someone (usually the United States) needs to strongly advocate for it. The Obama administration is doing no such thing. Instead, Paris and London have been the most assertive in pushing for Security Council approval. Essentially, Clark is arguing against intervention because of an absence of authority that the United States is itself perpetuating.

David Bosco is an associate professor at Indiana University's School of Global and International Studies. He is the author of books on the U.N. Security Council and the International Criminal Court, and is at work on a new book about governance of the oceans. Twitter: @multilateralist

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