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Editorial

The Libya calculation

Conservatives have criticized 'war by committee,' but in this conflict, consensus is the best course.

March 24, 2011

Unlike the Iraq war, which smacked of go-it-alone cowboyism, the Libyan intervention has been for the most part a multilateralist's dream: an idealistic granola bar of an operation, carefully orchestrated to win broad support from nations around the world. Not only did President Obama seek and receive the blessing of the U.N. Security Council, the Arab League and many of America's traditional allies before signing on to the no-fly zone, he even allowed the French to lead the charge.

Conservatives were unimpressed. They have long opposed multilateralism, for a variety of dubious reasons. For one thing, they simply don't like the United Nations, which they view as high-handed, moralistic, pathologically anti-Israel and all too often anti-American as well. And they have little tolerance for traditional American allies such as the French, even less for Russia and China, and none at all for the little Third World nations that they believe constitute the rabble at U.N. headquarters in New York.

Besides, conservatives just tend to be more vehement proponents of the use of American force. The United States is a superpower, for god's sake — the world's dominant military force, they say. Shouldn't it wield its strength when it wants to rather than hiding behind the skirts of others? Why should the United States allow decisions to be made for it by a Security Council that includes, as columnist Jonah Goldberg pointed out in these pages, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Lebanon, Nigeria and Gabon, among other countries? If American exceptionalism and the Pax Americana mean anything, surely they mean not having to take orders from the Gabonese.

Those arguments, however, are unpersuasive. The truth is that modern-day war is a serious business that concerns the entire globe, and should not be undertaken lightly or entered into willfully. Americans have learned over time that they don't have a monopoly on truth, justice or good judgment. There are also practical reasons to work within an international coalition. The U.S. today is not the only great power in the world, and its resources aren't unlimited. Buy-in from other nations and international institutions such as the U.N. lends moral legitimacy to a war, spreads the cost (financial as well as human) and, as an added benefit, makes it more difficult for opponents to respond with rote anti-Americanism.

But there is one part of the conservative argument that gives us pause. Conservatives say that while multilateralism may sound nice and feel good, it is unsuited to the exigencies of war. The diplomacy involved in winning the backing of governments around the world, they say, inevitably slows down the decision to go to war and, once the war is being waged, complicates the process of fighting it. Obama's determination not to act unilaterally, but instead to engage in a weeklong powwow, dithering in search of an agreed-upon approach, allowed Moammar Kadafi all the time he needed to turn the tide of battle. It also led to compromises that muddied the mission's objective and to days of squabbling about just who was running the show. "War by global committee," the Wall Street Journal called it.

That argument is a serious one. It is undeniably more difficult to go to war if you need to stop and get permission first. But it's a calculated cost. If the United States were facing an immediate threat to its vital national interests — say, an imminent attack by an enemy — it would presumably act instantly and unilaterally and not stop to chat about it with other world leaders. But when entering a "war of choice," which we would argue describes the Libyan intervention, the U.S. must decide whether the benefits of multilateral support outweigh the delay that inevitably results. In this case, the Obama administration decided, and we agree, that the wait was worth it.

On the other hand, when it comes to actually fighting a war, there are steps that can be taken to minimize the kind of confusion and squabbling and leadership disputes that we've seen in the first days of the Libyan intervention. Patricia Weitsman, a professor of political science at Ohio University, points out that the 1999 NATO operation in Kosovo was messy and unstructured, marred by an absence of clear military objectives, insufficient communication among the nations involved and delays as each participating nation was called upon to review and approve military targets. The 1991 Persian Gulf War, by contrast, was an example of a successful coalition effort. The United States and Saudi Arabia carefully, effectively and promptly divided up command and control operations in a way that ultimately enhanced the coalition's cohesion. They established separate but parallel lines of authority — so that, among other things, troops from Arab and Muslim countries could remain under Arab and Muslim control — but with much communication between the two and clear lines of command.

We didn't support the no-fly zone, and we have plenty of concerns about the Libyan intervention, which is far too open-ended and undefined for our taste. But if it's going to move forward, we are pleased that it is a multilateral effort. Sure, wars are more complicated when they're fought by committee. The solution, however, is not to give up on the coalitions and consensus-building that help create legitimacy, but to employ the mechanisms needed to make decisions in a timely and effective manner.

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