Daniel W. Drezner

The costs and benefits of multilateral coercion

I think it’s safe to say that the multilateral coalition implementing Operation Odyssey Dawn have had their share of public spats.  This means a lot of hand-holding and negative punditry/negative press stories on the issue.  Of course, this raises the question of whether there’s a better alternative or not.  As sick as liberals might be of ...

I think it’s safe to say that the multilateral coalition implementing Operation Odyssey Dawn have had their share of public spats.  This means a lot of hand-holding and negative punditry/negative press stories on the issue. 

Of course, this raises the question of whether there’s a better alternative or not.  As sick as liberals might be of using force in the Middle East, I suspect they’re even sicker of doing this unilaterally.  Some conservatives seem to get the notion that multilateralism has its advantages — particularly with generating American support for these kind of missions.

Clearly, there are tradeoffs here.  I could weight them very carefully using my own limited understanding, or I could be smart and ask an expert.  So, I posed the question to Sarah Kreps, Assistant Professor of Government at Cornell University and the author of the now-extremely-trenchant Coalitions of Convenience: United States Military Interventions after the Cold WarHer thoughts on the matter:   

Prime Minister Churchill once opined that "there is only one thing worse than fighting with allies-and that is having to fight without them."  These words were remarkable coming from a leader who had spent the better part of two years trying to encourage the American military to enter WWII.  Given coalition operations in Libya, leaders couldn’t be blamed for drawing the same conclusion as Churchill.

On the one hand, coalition operations in Libya are a recipe for disaster.  UN Security Council Resolution 1973 was crafted in intentionally vague terms in order to minimize opposition.  The unintended consequence is that no one can figure out who’s in charge, what the goals are, and when they’ll leave. Undertaking this as a NATO operation would have been obvious since at least it has a clear decision making apparatus, but member state Turkey opposes the use of military force in Libya.  As the Turkish prime minister said in televised speech, "Turkey will never be on the side of pointing the gun at the Libyan people."  The alternative to NATO is what Prime Minister David Cameron referred to as an ad hoc "coalition of the willing"-remember Iraq?-with a mishmash of largely British, American, French, Danish military assets.  But which of these is taking the lead and how these militaries are being coordinated is a mystery.  This violates rule #1 of military operations:  unity of command.

On the other hand, the United States already has TWO ongoing wars.  Undertaking a third was of questionable merit in my book, but once it decided to use force, it made sense to be able to share the burden with others.  President Obama justified the multilateral operation saying that "it means the United States is not bearing all the cost."  At the least, going multilaterally will have defrayed the cost for an overstretched American military. 

Whether multilateralism makes it more legitimate and exonerates the US from accusations of invading another Muslim country is another story.  The initial signs are not encouraging.  US marines have already been accused of firing on civilians when they went in to rescue the pilots of the fallen F-15E.  Ultimately, events on the ground are likely to determine the legitimacy, not UN and Arab League approval.  If the operation is successful, then multilateralism will have seemed like the legitimate, effective choice. 

Of course, the first step is to figure out what success looks like.  That ambiguity, however, is no fault of the coalition.   The US has had some difficulty figuring that out in its "own" wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Making that decision by committee will be considerably more difficult.  But far preferable, as Churchill might have said, than having to bear the burden of fighting alone.

What do you think? 

Daniel W. Drezner is a professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University and the author of Theories of International Politics and Zombies. His latest book is The Toddler in Chief. Twitter: @dandrezner

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