In its month-long crabwalk toward a military confrontation with Libya’s Moammar Gadhafi, the Obama administration has delivered a clinic in the liberal way of war.
Just a couple of weeks ago, as the tide began to turn against the anti-Gadhafi rebellion, President Barack Obama seemed determined to keep the United States out of Libya’s civil strife. But it turns out the president just wanted to make sure we were doing it in the most multilateral, least cowboyish fashion imaginable.
That much his administration has achieved. In its opening phase, at least, our war in Libya looks like the beau ideal of a liberal internationalist intervention. It was blessed by the U.N. Security Council, endorsed by the Arab League, and pushed by the State Department rather than the military men at Robert Gates’ Pentagon.
Its humanitarian purpose is much clearer than its connection to U.S. national security. And it was initiated by the fighter jets of the French Republic.
This is a stark departure from the Bush administration’s more unilateralist methods. There are no “coalitions of the willing” here, no dismissive references to “Old Europe.” Instead, the Obama White House has shown exquisite deference to the very international institutions and foreign governments that the Bush administration steamrolled or ignored.
This way of war spreads the burden of military action, sustains our alliances and takes the edge off the world’s instinctive anti-Americanism. Best of all, it encourages European powers to shoulder their share of responsibility for maintaining global order.
But there are major problems with this approach to war. Because liberal wars depend on constant consensus-building within the (so-called) international community, they tend to be fought by committee, at a glacial pace, and with a caution that shades into tactical incompetence.
And because their connection to the national interest is often tangential at best, they’re often fought with one hand behind our back and an eye on the exits, rather than with the full commitment that victory can require.
These problems dogged American foreign policy throughout the 1990s, the previous high tide of liberal interventionism. In Somalia, the public soured on our humanitarian mission as soon as it became clear we would take casualties as well as dispense relief supplies. In the former Yugoslavia, NATO imposed a no-fly zone in 1993, but it took two years of hapless peacekeeping and diplomatic wrangling, during which the war proceeded unabated, before U.S. air strikes finally paved the way for a negotiated peace.
Our 1999 intervention in Kosovo offers an even starker cautionary tale. The NATO bombing campaign helped topple Slobodan Milosevic and midwifed an independent Kosovo. But by raising the stakes for both Milosevic and his Kosovo Liberation Army foes, the West’s intervention probably inspired more bloodletting and ethnic cleansing in the short term, exacerbating the very humanitarian crisis it was intended to forestall.
The same kind of difficulties are already bedeviling our Libyan war. Our coalition’s aims are uncertain: Obama is rhetorically committed to the idea that Gadhafi needs to go, but Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, allowed that the dictator might ultimately remain in power.
Our means are constrained: the U.N. resolution we’re enforcing explicitly rules out ground forces, and Obama has repeatedly done so, as well. And some of our supposed partners don’t seem to have the stomach for a fight.
And the time it took to build a multilateral coalition enabled Gadhafi to consolidate his position on the ground, to the point where any cease-fire would leave him in control of most of the country.
The ultimate hope of liberal warfare is to fight as virtuously as possible, and with the minimum of risk. But war and moralism are uneasy bedfellows, and “low risk” conflicts often turn out to be anything but. By committing America to the perils of yet another military intervention, Barack Obama has staked an awful lot on the hope that our Libyan adventure will prove an exception to this rule.•
Douthat is a New York Times op-ed columnist. Send comments on this column to firstname.lastname@example.org.