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The U.N. Effect

Obama’s quest for ‘international legitimacy’ makes for a dishonest Libya policy

Apr 11, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 29 • By TOD LINDBERG
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For those who care about “international legitimacy,” the gold standard is a United Nations Security Council resolution. The Obama foreign policy team as a whole has been obsessed with legitimacy since the White House was merely a gleam in the eye of the junior senator from Illinois. Indeed, the administration’s sense of amour propre is grounded in no small measure in feelings of superiority about its care for and cultivation of legitimacy, especially in contrast with its cowboy-unilateralist predecessor. So it is that Security Council Resolutions 1970 and 1973 form the backdrop for our current adventures in Libya.

Thomas Fluharty

Thomas Fluharty

It would take a near-invincible skepticism about the utility of the United Nations in international politics to deny that these resolutions have had value for the United States in organizing the response to Muammar Qaddafi’s intention to hold on in Libya at all costs. The administration sought and supported them, and apparently got the wording it wanted. Under U.N. auspices, the buy-in among allies and even some Arab countries (following an Arab League request for a no-fly zone) was substantially greater than it would otherwise likely have been, even though the cost in delay was nearly fatal to the Libyan rebels. And the United States has certainly been subject to much less international criticism than it would have been in their absence.

In the view of both supporters and critics, this time it’s not neoconservative unilateralism marching the United States off to war. It’s liberal internationalism that is on the prowl, both in terms of substance​—​a humanitarian mission to protect civilians​—​and in terms of form, namely, through the U.N.

It is anything but clear what liberal internationalists are going to think of themselves in the morning, especially if this project gets messy, as it very likely will. What should be clear by now, however, is that “international legitimacy” doesn’t ever come cost-free to the United States. On the contrary, the combination of working through the U.N. and truly believing in its legitimizing powers seriously strains foreign policymaking in the American grain.

The reason is that foreign policymaking in the United States, more so than in most other democratic countries, is based to a very remarkable degree on a principle of saying what you mean and meaning what you say. That’s true not only with regard to the way policy develops inside an administration but also for that administration’s ability to explain policy choices to the American people and cultivate their support, as well as for its ability to conduct diplomacy.

From the beginning of the Libyan rebellion, the administration as a whole and the president in particular have seemed singularly vague and self-contradictory about what our policy is and what we are prepared to do to pursue it. Some of that is surely the result of internal uncertainty and division. But not all. It’s also a product of a U.N. framework that makes candor all but impossible.

If you want a sense of how ubiquitous the “say what you mean, mean what you say” element of American foreign policy is, you need look no further than the massive WikiLeaks dump of internal State Department cables. It’s true that the documents were never intended for public release, and that they offer candid appraisals of foreign officials and public figures of a sort no government would proffer aloud. But the real WikiLeaks story is not what the official secrecy concealed. It’s that operating in an environment of official secrecy and writing for a closed community of secret-sharers, Foreign Service officers made assessments and proffered judgments that were entirely consistent with stated U.S. policy and with background briefings by “senior administration officials” on the subject of who’s who and what’s what.

The depths did not contradict the appearance on the surface, but rather confirmed it. Any hard-core left-wing critic of U.S. foreign policy and its supposedly deceptive nature must have been either bitterly disappointed at the absence of evidence of subterfuge or astounded at the immensity of the conspiracy​—​thousands of officials writing hundreds of thousands of pages over more than a decade, and not a smoking gun in the bunch. Not even Comrade Stalin achieved such discipline among the cadres, and he had purges, show trials, and the Great Terror as enforcement tools.

The words matter. When the George W. Bush administration found itself having to rethink American security strategy on the fly in the aftermath of an unprecedentedly devastating attack by a nonstate actor, the vehicle for doing so quickly became the drafting of the 2002 National Security Strategy of the United States. An argument over words is not policy, but the result can certainly go a long way toward shaping policy. The Defense Department’s Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) is a recurring example: Pentagon policy battles always hark back to the principles adduced in the latest QDR.

The Obama administration’s 2010 National Security Strategy is rightly understood as an exercise in distinguishing its approach to security from that of the preceding administration​—​less unilateral than Bush, more focused on institutions and institution-building than Bush, more inclined toward engagement than Bush, a less truculent tone than Bush. True, there has been more continuity in policy with Bush than his critics would ever have imagined, from Guantánamo to Iraq to Afghanistan, but the rationale of policies has shifted in accordance with the new strategy document. The Obama administration’s Nuclear Posture Review is similarly a document that spells out a vision, a world without nuclear weapons, meant to guide policy. And Hillary Clinton has instituted her new State Department QDDR, modeled on the Pentagon document, with the D’s in this case standing for “Diplomacy and Development.” Documents such as these are simultaneously the work product of an internal process, often involving heated dispute, by which an administration has clarified its own views, as well as the architectural structure governing consideration of future policy questions. Collectively, they come as close as possible to an answer to the question of what a U.S. administration really thinks.

The reason such documents can carry so much weight is that they ultimately bear the president’s personal imprimatur. When senior officials cannot resolve a dispute over strategy and doctrine among themselves, it goes to the president for consideration and reconciliation. Unity is imposed from the top. And at the level of specific policy questions, such as war and peace, presidential speechwriters, spokesmen, and senior officials draw on these statements to elucidate the principles on which policy rests.

The United Nations Security Council is an entirely different animal. There is no top, and therefore no imposition of unity. The council takes decisions by majority vote, but five powers have a veto and thus wield vastly more influence. Fundamentally, the outcome is a negotiated instrument reflecting the agreement of sovereign states, some being more equal than others. There is no “executive branch”; the U.N. secretary-general is emphatically not president of the world. Implementation of Security Council resolutions falls almost entirely to states and organizations of states.

The United States can set strategy and policy for itself and then decide on means to implement it. The Security Council, by contrast, “decides” only on ends and then asks states to come up with means. The U.S. government also has the capability of assessing available means and devising policy in accordance with a realistic assessment of what is achievable. The United Nations has to rely at best on promises from states about what they might do. In pursuit of a policy, the United States has the capacity (not to say it’s easy) for self-correction, adjusting means or reassessing ends. The Security Council can pass new resolutions in response to changing circumstances, but until it does, its last resolution is carved in stone in terms of what it authorizes, regardless of changes on the ground.

Except, of course, that a Security Council resolution is anything but carved in stone, in the sense that its meaning depends to a significant degree on interpretation by governments, which include both policy-makers and lawyers of varying national influence. States have their own agendas that often affect interpretations. Factions within governments may have different views about the best course for policy and cloak their infighting in terms of an interpretation of legality of conduct under the terms of a resolution. Recall that in early 2003, opinion about whether another Security Council resolution was necessary to authorize going to war against Iraq divided rather neatly according to whether a state was ready to act at once or preferred to wait.

The Obama administration’s bumbling over Libya is largely a product of the dual position in which the United States now finds itself. We are on one hand the world’s biggest power, uniquely capable of entertaining the audacious idea of protecting civilians in far-away places from the depredations of their own governments​—​moreover, of making a statement like “Qaddafi must go” and having it mean something, both in terms of pressuring Qaddafi and by heavily vesting the United States in the outcome. If the American president says Qaddafi has to go and he ends up staying, the United States has a problem on its hands that is much larger than Qaddafi himself. 

On the other hand, the United States has also placed itself in the position of implementer-in-chief of U.N. Security Council Resolution 1973. We wanted it; we got it; we cite it as authority for our actions. And what do you know? It doesn’t align itself at all well with the proposition that Qaddafi must go. The resolution forms an excellent basis for a no-fly zone and for civilian protection, but beyond that, we are at best in a very gray area.

When Obama gave his televised speech explaining U.S. policy, he was a president divided against himself. He was at pains to reconcile a U.S. policy of enforcement of a U.N. resolution and a U.S. policy seeking the ouster of Qaddafi by, presumably, some means other than the enforcement of the U.N. resolution but not in contradiction to it. This is not an easy thing to do.

“Of course,” said the president, as if there were anything “of course” about it, “there is no question that Libya​—​and the world​—​will be better off with Qaddafi out of power. I, along with many other world leaders, have embraced that goal, and will actively pursue it through nonmilitary means. But broadening our military mission to include regime change would be a mistake.” That’s because, among other things, we have a “U.N. mandate” only for civilian protection and a no-fly zone (and if we had taken no action, the “writ of the United Nations Security Council would have been shown to be little more than empty words, crippling that institution’s future credibility to uphold global peace and security”). Trying to “overthrow Qaddafi by force” would likely splinter the coalition gathered around the implementation of 1973 and require U.S. “troops on the ground” to avoid inflicting civilian casualties from the air. Such a course would be too risky and too costly: too Iraq-like.

So we are for regime change, but not through a military mission. The president left unsaid the point that our scruples do not prevent us from favoring regime change through use of our clandestine assets in support of the rebels, and that the CIA operatives now reportedly in Libya do not go in unarmed. The president reiterated what we have a U.N. mandate for, but he assiduously did not concede that under 1973, pursuit of regime change altogether, including by covert “kinetic means,” is forbidden. Nor did he rule out a “broaden[ed] .  .  . military mission” short of “regime change.”

Let’s skip to the extreme case: Okay, we don’t want to send our army in to topple Qaddafi. And indeed, we can’t under the terms of 1973, which authorizes “all necessary measures .  .  . 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 [emphasis added].” So that’s out, right? Except, well, what if we recognized the rebels as the legitimate government of Libya? What if they asked us for help? We would be responding not as occupiers but as allies. If Qaddafi didn’t like it, he could always try going to the Security Council to get a resolution to stop us.

Now, as it happens, there is much that President Obama should not say even if he could comfortably say it, including anything and everything along the speculative lines of the previous paragraph. But there is also much that he apparently believes but cannot comfortably say straightforwardly, out of fidelity to his U.N. diplomacy. At least one hopes so, and that the wiggle room he maintained in his speech is a joint product of his conviction that Qaddafi really must go and his unwillingness to tell the American people an outright lie for the sake of upholding U.N. appearances (as might the French).

His administration’s U.N. diplomacy was adroit and is in some respects admirable, but not for its contribution to the American tradition of candor in foreign policy.

Tod Lindberg, a research fellow at the Hoover Institution and editor of Policy Review, is a contributing editor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD.

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