Stephen M. Walt

Has the U.S. forgotten how to pass the buck?

 Mark Sheetz of Boston College offers the following guest post: President Obama’s handling of the Libyan crisis could have been worse, but not much worse. The president had a perfect opportunity to push the Europeans into the lead on this issue but could not muster the sangfroid to call the Europeans’ bluff. France and Britain ...

JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images
JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images

 Mark Sheetz of Boston College offers the following guest post:

President Obama’s handling of the Libyan crisis could have been worse, but not much worse.

The president had a perfect opportunity to push the Europeans into the lead on this issue but could not muster the sangfroid to call the Europeans’ bluff. France and Britain were out front early on military intervention, yet the United States did not seize the opportunity to state the obvious, namely, that the Europeans could handle this one. The European Security Strategy is focused squarely on conflict management, "human security," and the defense of human rights. The European Union maintains a "Mediterannean partnership" with North African countries and a "neighborhood policy" that concerns stability and security on its southern and eastern flanks. A humanitarian crisis in Libya fits perfectly into European security concerns.

President Sarkozy of France was especially eager to show what Europeans could do.  He went out front and recognized a motley group of rebels as the legitimate government of Libya without consulting allies in either NATO or the European Union.  A recent article in Le Figaro gives a terrific account of Bernard Henry Lévy’s involvement in the affair. Levy is a public intellectual and another vain French rooster strutting around looking for glory. Ever the opportunist, Levy found the rebels in Benghazi and hooked them up with Sarkozy, who pounced on the chance to be their champion to the rest of the world. 

The French and British recently joined together at Lancaster House to loudly proclaim European security cooperation in the joint use of aircraft carriers, expeditionary forces, and nuclear weapons. These two countries have the largest defense budgets and the most advanced military capabilities in Europe and can field forces that can pummel any African army, including Libya’s, into submission.

Given that the United States has no vital interests of any kind to protect in Libya, the situation was tailor-made for Europeans to take the initiative and handle this one without us.  Yet the President could not leave well enough alone. He was somehow shamed into showing American "leadership." The story of how the Europeans managed to bait Obama into joining the "coalition" and supplying the vast bulk of military capabilities will be a fascinating one to unravel. 

In accepting the Nobel prize, President Obama declared that military force was justified on humanitarian grounds and that the defense of human rights was in the national interest.  Now he has set the precedent of waging war for third tier interests beyond the narrow scope of national security. In so doing, he has compromised the nation’s security interest in non-proliferation. The key lesson that states like Iran, Syria, and Saudi Arabia will draw from the military intervention in Libya is to keep a nuclear development program if you have one and go get one if you do not. One has to believe that Qaddafi is now tormenting himself at night with the question: "Why did I ever agree to give up my WMD programs? 

Mark Sheetz is a fellow in International Security at the John F. Kennedy School of Government of Harvard University.

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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