martes, 19 de abril de 2011


By Clive Crook

President Barack Obama was not in Washington when the first missiles struck targets in Libya. As the US went to war at the weekend – the third on his watch – he left for Brazil to discuss trade. The trip could have been cancelled but the White House made a virtue of it. The president’s absence affirmed the administration’s stance. The US is supporting the strikes against Col Muammer Gaddafi, but it did not take the lead in insisting on them and is not in command.

This is not the kind of leadership the world is used to. On the other hand it is the posture much of the world, the part enraptured by Mr Obama’s election, said it wanted. Now we have it, we shall see how long it lasts and how well it works.

As you would expect, US foreign-policy hawks are unimpressed. They say Mr Obama dithered. While the allies built their coalition and won their UN resolution, Col Gaddafi gained the upper hand. If his forces mingle with civilians in Benghazi and other cities, attacking from the air will be hard. Helping the rebels win would have been easy two weeks ago. Now the allies might have to police a partition of the country, with Col Gaddafi hanging on.

It is one thing to hear these arguments from American hawks. If necessary, when vital interests are at stake, they want the US to act on its own initiative, international law be damned. It is quite another thing – in fact, it beggars belief – to hear similar complaints about dithering from some Europeans. Mr Obama has let us down, they say. Precious time has been lost.

Not long ago, Europe complained that the US was bullying, reckless and high-handed. Not long ago, Europe was ecstatic at Mr Obama’s election because this was not his style. You would think, having longed for a president who was cautious, deliberate and respectful of other countries’ opinions – and having voiced contempt for George Bush because he was none of those things – Europeans would hesitate to say: “The time for talking is over. Just start shooting.”

Both kinds of critic – US hawks and Europe’s militant multilateralists – are right to say dithering held up the allied attacks and made the mission harder. The problem for multilateralists is that dithering is built into the system they advocate. If you cannot tolerate dithering, better not demand UN authority for your military interventions.

Europeans say better US leadership could have brought the allies to the point of action faster. How? America had good reason to lag behind the UK and France. It was right to be nervous about further inflaming sentiment against it in the Islamic world. If the operation was seen as US led, that might help the Libyan regime to stir resistance at home and abroad. And US military resources are already stretched. The Pentagon was leery of this mission and expressed its reservations in public. A wise president does not overrule such advice lightly.

Moreover, even if the US had pushed harder, a coalition with Britain and France would still have been too small by multilateralist lights. Assembling broad consensus, regional participation and cast-iron compliance with international law was bound to take time. To meet these conditions so quickly, and to win authority not just for a pointless no-fly zone but for “all necessary measures”, was a notable achievement. Against the odds, armed multilateralism has passed its first test: the allies have launched an intervention witha chance of success .

Unfortunately, the price of multilateralism is not confined to initial delay. It is hard to fight by committee, especially when every tactic is examined for political salience. So much has been made of this feat of co-operation that the coalition must be maintained at all cost. Suppose the fight is tougher than the allies expect. Will they agree on how or whether to escalate? Arab League support has been emphasised at every turn. Does this give it a veto over the campaign? That would be awkward since its chief on Sunday said the air strikes were not what it had envisaged.

In short, unilateralist scepticism is well grounded. Yet the advantages of full-compliance multilateralism are, even from the narrow American point of view, appealing. Legitimacy in the eyes of other nations has value in a world where soft power counts. In Libya the allies are doing the right thing and, let us hope, winning friends – while the breadth of the alliance, the authority of the UN and the US posture of “third among equals” refute the accusation that America has opened a new front against Islam. In fiscally straitened times, greater burden-sharing in global security is all to the good.

It would be hard to exaggerate how much rides on the outcome. Even if the Libyan regime crumples, there will be times when the allies regret their ownership of the consequences. Still, if all goes well, Col Gaddafi will exit, peace will be restored and Libya will take halting steps towards democracy. Collective action under UN authority will have scored a huge victory and a new pattern will be set. If the venture drags on or collapses – especially if its multilateral character is seen as the reason – international relations will be pushed the other way.

One imponderable, oddly neglected up to now, is the view of US voters. The mood has been against US involvement. If all goes well, voters will come round and be proud. If not, they will care not a jot about international legitimacy and will ask instead about legitimacy at home. If this is another war, where was Congress? Whose decisions, exactly, are putting US forces at risk? And why was the president not in the Oval Office when this all started, explaining his decision to the nation?

He had a meeting in Brazil.

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