Turtle Bay

Obama’s multilateral march to war: strategic choice or rushed improvisation?

It was fitting that President Obama’s abrupt decision this week to back a U.N. resolution paving the way for a military assault on Muammar Qaddafi‘s forces culminated with a vote in a closed-door Security Council session. Washington’s decision-making was as lacking in clarity and transparency as the council meeting itself. Before the council vote, it ...

It was fitting that President Obama’s abrupt decision this week to back a U.N. resolution paving the way for a military assault on Muammar Qaddafi‘s forces culminated with a vote in a closed-door Security Council session. Washington’s decision-making was as lacking in clarity and transparency as the council meeting itself.

Before the council vote, it remained unclear who was leading the effort to pass the resolution, who would participate in the subsequent intervention, and whether the real aim of the mission was to protect civilians, as stated, or, more likely, to force Qaddafi from power.

Even more of a mystery was why the United States, which had seems so skeptical about the virtues of military intervention in Libya, had suddenly signed off on a risky new military intervention in the Arab world.

But one thing was made clear. The U.S. would use force to save lives in Libya only if it had the U.N. Security Council’s imprimatur, and only if it had clear commitments that the U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki moon and a coalition of countries, including the Arab League, would play a central role in the mission.

A generation ago, Presidents George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton had pushed for similarly deferent provisions in U.N. negotiations, calling it a policy of "assertive multilateralism." But both administrations had their hopes dashed by deadly setbacks in Somalia and Bosnia, respectively.

Never again, Democratic and Republican politicians proclaimed, would the U.S. subcontract its foreign policy to the United Nations or grant a U.N. Secretary General authority over U.S. forces’ ability to use force, as happened with Boutros Boutros-Ghali in Bosnia. Indeed, President Clinton subsequently insisted that U.N. mandates have clear and achievable goals and exit strategies — conditions that could not be fulfilled in the case of Rwanda on the eve of that country’s descent into genocide in 1995.

But in weighing its first new military undertaking, the Obama administration has insisted that the U.N. and the Arab League be at the center of the military effort. U.N. Security Council Resolution 1973 — which establishes a no-fly zone over Libya and grants sweeping authority to foreign militaries to protect civilians in Libya — requires that states intending to use force consult with Secretary General Ban Ki moon and the Arab League chief, Amr Moussa on their operations. Susan E. Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, further insisted in a closed door meeting of the Security Council that the U.S. would only participate in enforcing a no-fly zone over Libya if Arab governments also participated.

U.N. observers said the U.S. strategy reflected its long-stated preference for multilateral engagement, particularly at a time when U.S. forces are deployed in Afghanistan and Iraq. But the march to conflict also appears to have developed on the fly, they said. "This smacks of something done in a rush," said Carne Ross, a former U.N.-based British diplomat.

Ross believes that the failure to rally support for the resolution from five key members — Brazil, China, Germany, India and Russia — could potentially "weaken the political legitimacy" of any military operation, particularly if it is protracted and messy. "If all goes well next week and Qaddafi flees into exile nobody will mind. But if it goes badly and international support starts to erodes those five countries will feel very little obligation to support" the effort to squeeze Qaddafi.

Britain and France, by many accounts, both took the initiative in developing a resolution that would authorize a no-fly zone. The U.S., according to one council diplomat, appeared "semi-detached. We’re still trying to work out ourselves what was really happening with the United States."

On Monday, that changed.  During a closed door session of the U.N. Security Council on Monday, Rice, welcomed the Arab League’s call for a no fly zone, saying it "merits urgent and serious consideration," according to a council member who heard her remarks. But she said U.S. "willingness" to support the Arab League initiative "will depend on serious participation by Arab states."

Libyans "deserve our active protection against indiscriminate mass killings and executions," she said, according to the council diplomat. "We should all keep in mind the no-fly-zone on its own is unlikely to protect civilians on the ground."

On March 15, Rice appeared more tentative in a closed-door session, questioning other council members about whether there would be Arab League participation, suggesting a no-fly zone would not change the dynamics on the ground. Her brief sounded skeptical and lawyerly, according to a council diplomat.

"We had the feeling that they had no idea what their policy was going to be," said a Security Council diplomat.  

But the following day, Rice signaled it was prepared to take action. Following a closed door Security Council meeting, Rice told reporters, "The U.S. view is that we need to be prepared to contemplate steps that include, but perhaps go beyond, a no-fly zone at this point, as the situation on the ground has evolved, and as a no-fly zone has inherent limitations in terms of protection of civilians at immediate risk."

Mark Kornblau, Rice’s spokesman, challenged the characterization of U.S. policy as detached, noting that the US engaged swiftly in the council on the need to seriously consider a no-fly zone and other action to protect civilians.

"The United States made its position very clear in the Security Council negotiations and there wasn’t any doubt about our intentions because of the way Ambassador Rice laid it out, very plainly and clearly."

Edward Luck, the senior vice president at the International Peace Institute, who serves as a part time advisor for the U.N. secretary general, said it was inevitable that the planning for the no-fly zone would appear a bit murky to the outside world because there is no obvious country with the national interests and military wherewithal to take the lead in carrying out such an operation. "It’s not because people want to be opaque but because there is no natural leader," he said.

But he defended the U.S.’s more low-key multilateralist strategy, saying it made it easier to convince other states to support a pair of sweeping resolutions that imposed severe sanctions on Qaddafi’s regime, triggered a war crimes investigation, and opened the way to the use of military force to protect civilians.

"Historian have to look backward at the fact that the United States not being in the vanguard may have been helpful in the sense that it didn’t look like a U.S. effort to dominate Libya and intervene in the Islamic world," Luck said. "It made it easier for others to get on board."

Follow me on Twitter @columlynch

Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch

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