The President’s Case for Multilateral Action

Let’s reconsider the second part of the two-part formulation that President Obama set out in his address at West Point:

But in other cases, “when issues of global concern do not pose a direct threat to the United States . . . we should not go it alone.” Instead, Obama said, “we must mobilize allies and partners to take collective action” and “broaden our tools to include diplomacy and development; sanctions and isolation; appeals to international law and — if just, necessary and effective — multilateral military action.”

and let’s see how that part applies to two distinct cases: Iraq and Libya.

In the invasion of Iraq President Bush had “allies and partners” (remember the “Coalition of the Willing”?), a decade had been spent attempting diplomacy, sanctions, and isolation, he had a stack of applicable UN resolutions as long as your arm, and he clearly thought the invasion was just, necessary, and would be effective. That last is a key point: effectiveness is generally a post hoc analysis.

I disagreed with the Bush Administration’s assessment. I don’t think the invasion was just or necessary and I thought that the belief that it would be effective using the measures we were willing to apply was just wishful thinking. I think it’s fair to say it has not proven particularly effective given the chaos in Iraq today.

By comparison the case for the attacks against Libya which ultimately resulted in the ouster of Moammar Qaddafi is relatively weak. The UNSC resolution only extended to protecting civilians not bombing. Yes, it was multilateral but not a great deal more so than Iraq. That’s a very thin reed. Given the absence of an applicable Security Council resolution or Congressional authorization it was not just (justice requires just authority and the president does not have the authority to wage offensive war citing emergency powers without Congressional approval in advance), its necessity is ambiguous, and its ineffectiveness is now obvious given the persistent carnage in Libya not to mention that it destabilized the entire region.

That’s what I’ve meant when I’ve written that, unlike many including the editors of the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Wall Street Journal, I’m in broad agreement with the president’s statement of principles but I think his application of them has been, well, uneven.

14 comments… add one
  • CStanley

    Libya seems to me to be Iraq lite. We went in with a much smaller footprint but the results are the same.

    For much of Obama’s foreign policy, it seems the calculus is to repeat what Bush did but have plausible deniability for the downside risks and negative PR (Gitmo- keep it open but make noises about wanting to shut it down; ramp up drone strikes to avoid the future dilemma about what to do with detainees; cheer for uprisings to unseat governments, and use the resulting humanitarian crises to justify small scale military interventions when necessary…etc.)

  • ...

    Libya seems to me to be Iraq lite. We went in with a much smaller footprint but the results are the same.

    I disagree. As badly as Iraq was handled, there can’t be any doubt that the Bush Administration took possession of that country and tried to administer it. They made a hash of it, but they tried.

    What Obama did was remove the government of Libya, encourage everyone in that country to murder and mayhem, and then sat back and watched while all his minions declared it a success and blamed everything that went wrong on a YouTube video. Obama took an unpleasant situation which was probably the best that could be hoped for (Libya being run by a dictator), and created pure Hell on Earth. And then congratulated himself on how fucking brilliant he was even while his own ambassador got ass-raped to death while he worked on getting paid by the oligarchs running this country.

    That’s pure evil by result, and since it was so easily predictable it was evil by intent. Not incompetent, but evil.

  • CStanley

    That’s kind of my point though- that the main difference was the avoidance of responsibility. I’m less inclined to label that as evil, but there’s certainly indifference involved.

    And in both cases I think the POTUS’s were blinded by wishful thinking. Maybe this is what prevents me from seeing evil, because intent was good even though the results have been so terrible.

  • Guarneri

    I can’t separate myself from the notion Obama is no damned good, in a character flaw sense. But that’s because I know who he hung with here…………..carefully hidden or excused by his defense shield.

  • ...

    CStanley, the only times this president seems interested in anything is when he can denounce someone as a racist, or when he needs to fill out and expound upon his brackets for March Madness. At some point the neglect becomes malignant. If he were this indifferent to children in his care, he would have been arrested long ago for neglect.

  • jan

    CStanley, the only times this president seems interested in anything is when he can denounce someone as a racist, or when he needs to fill out and expound upon his brackets for March Madness.

    …and yet, his supporters continue to excuse his performance as being at least ‘better than what a nasty republican or 3rd party candidate might do.’ I sometimes think there is nothing this president could do or say that would ever cause these partisan progressives to rethink their decision to reelect this man.

  • Cstanley

    Ellipsis my opinion of Obama really isn’t any higher than is yours, but on this particular issue I think there is similarity. Realistically, it was foreseeable that Iraq and Libya would spin out of control, and I really don’t think any president wants to unleash regional shitstorms. The conclusion I then draw is that they both had unrealistic expectations. I guess, when taking a broader view of things, I would agree that Obama was more likely to not care about downside risk ( knowing full well the media would have his back ) while Bush must have known he’d take it on the chin politically if it failed. For Bush, you could infer that meant he cared more about the lives of the affected people, since his own fate was more connected to theirs. I just don’t think that matters much since both projects were doomed to fail, and they both ought to have known better.

  • ...

    CStanley, Bush can claim that he put boots on the ground and expended much in the way of treasure, lives and blood (to recognize the costs paid by those that didn’t die) to stabilize the country. He may have fucked it up, and it may have been destined to fail, but he did try.

    But the Obama and the Dems, who constantly go back to Shinseki’s statement that “something in the order of several hundred thousand soldiers” would be needed to stabilize post-war Iraq, thought that ZERO troops would stabilize Libya?

    I can’t accept that as a logical proposition. They knew what they were doing, and the fact that they celebrate it as a success ….

  • Cstanley

    Perhaps Shinseki had a change of heart. It certainly doesn’t seem that he felt any effort or manpower was needed to fix the VA, and look how well that worked out!

  • steve

    The resolution said this…

    ““4. Authorizes Member States that have notified the Secretary-General, acting nationally or through regional organizations or arrangements, and acting in cooperation with the Secretary-General, to take all necessary measures, notwithstanding paragraph 9 of resolution 1970 (2011), to protect civilians and civilian populated areas under threat of attack in the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya, including Benghazi, while excluding a foreign occupation force of any form on any part of Libyan territory, and requests the Member States concerned to inform the Secretary-General immediately of the measures they take pursuant to the authorization conferred by this paragraph which shall be immediately reported to the Security Council;”

    A week earlier the Arab League had called for a no-fly zone, the first time it had acted against one of its own. In Iraq there was no urgency. There was no crisis. A coalition of the paid off or obligated did form, but there was very limited support among the Arab community. Granted, the Arabs started to waffle when things started, there was support and it was fairly wide. There was a UN resolution.

    Was the outcome more evil than letting Qaddafi slaughter those he didnt like? Dont know. What I think you can say that the war was managed with much more competence than Iraq. Bad ultimate outcomes in both places, but Libya cost us a couple billion and no soldiers lives, compared with trillions and thousands of our soldiers lives.


  • I’m quite aware of what the resolution said. It said “protect” not “bomb”.

  • steve

    Protect them how? Water balloons? Asking nicely? It does say “all necessary measures”. I had forgotten what a broad statement was in that resolution.


  • Protect them how?

    Establishing enclaves, for example. But that would require “boots on the ground”.

  • steve

    Boots on the ground were forbidden in the resolution. That leaves air power and diplomacy, which had failed.


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