The President’s Case for Multilateral Action

by Dave Schuler on May 30, 2014

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.

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