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.
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.