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John Michael Grant: Shouldering International Burdens

Following in the wake of a previous post, John Michael Grant offers the following comments.

There has been media coverage regarding President Obama’s address to the nation on Monday, 03/28/2011 with respect to the allied intervention in Libya’s insurrection or civil war.

The President has made clear that he directed the U.S. military forces to intervene because the United States had a responsibility to act, and that the United States had garnered the support of some other nations to act, so that —as an international coalition— the financial burdens of the war would be shared.

I’ve written before about this issue, namely:  If there is moral imperative to respond to a humanitarian crisis, one’s responsibility to act is not eliminated if your friends decide not to help, or decide to leave early.  One’s responsibility to act is actually commensurate with the resources, energy, etc. that you can bring to the table.

Now, in the case of Libya:

1.  Anyway you look at it, the U.S. is on tap to shoulder the vast majority of the allies’ financial costs of the war.

2.  So let’s say for the sake of argument that President Obama knew going into the Libya conflict that he would be putting American taxpayers on the hook for, say, 1 billion dollars minimum, and maybe 5 billion dollars maximum.  (I know, I know, nobody seems to think about the maximum these days…it’s purposely kept vague to reduce the chance of protest.)  However, for the purposes of this argument, the amount of the financial obligation is not of defining consequence.

3.  So now let’s say that for whatever reason, our international partners develop too many reservations about the game plan (or maybe the lack thereof) and they drop out, withdrawing whatever financial support they may have brought to the table.

4.  Now the U.S. finds itself alone in several respects, and this certainly includes all the costs.

5.  If the mission is still a humanitarian mission, —i.e., if we haven’t concluded that we would actually be helping al-Queda, for example, militarily defeat Qadaffi— then does our responsibility to complete the humanitarian mission end simply because our international partners dropped out ?    If you answer YES here, think about this:  Going back to Point 2, President Obama went into the fray expecting to spend somewhere between “X” and “Y” number of dollars.  So, if that number hasn’t been reached by the time that the international partnership dissolves [or if such a partnership was never formed in the first place], what about the initial commitment to spend between “X” and “Y” dollars ?

6.  If you don’t have any resources, then you may well be exempted from a moral obligation to respond to a crisis, whether on a personal or national level.  But if you do have such resources, and you choose not to employ them –even if it means rethinking your strategy because you don’t have international support– are you pursuing the morally correct resolution of the crisis ?    I would argue NO to that question; the pursuit of a moral solution is not contingent on its popularity or ease of success.

7.  Thus, it is along this line of reasoning that I take serious issue with many of our past and present politicians, including President Obama.  If the U.S. has a moral obligation to act, it does not matter if the international community supports the action.  Now, that said, if there is a perception that the U.S. has a political obligation to act, then the support of the international community may be of great importance.

8.  So, which do we have in Libya ?  Is it a true moral obligation to act, or is it more of a political obligation to act based on our history of trying to be stalwart sentinels for democracy ?  If we are facing a true moral obligation to act in Libya, then we must confront our failures or even unwillingness to unleash military strikes in other past and present-day “hot spots.”  And President Obama has not touched this hot potato.  If he continues to shy away from this issue, more and more people will conclude that his decision to take us into a third war was based more on politics than any real moral obligation, especially since the media is filled with reports that our own government knows almost nothing about the political and moral composition of the Libyan rebel forces !

9.  Based on all of U.S. history, I think that we have a right—I think that we have a compelling obligation—to vigorously question the motives of our politicians, as well as their strategies for dealing any problem, but certainly a problem that leads us into war.

10.  In my judgment, President Obama has made mistakes, and he’s is making mistakes right now.  To err is human, but gosh darn it, he’s making some of the same mistakes that President Bush made just a few years ago !  So, is there no recollection of history, both dated and recent ?   Well, despite the efforts to ensure that the Administration speaks with one voice, there are reports of spirited debates with the Administration to bring the right solution(s) to the table.  But the President has to make the right choices !

11.  Reflecting upon American history, my judgment is that the American people have frequently given their Presidents too much latitude, and that the electorate fails to pull back their support quickly enough for several reasons.  One of those reasons is tradition, another is that they want to trust the President, because the President is being paid to do a job that only a relative few really want or could handle well.  But I think another reason has to do with man’s propensity for pride:  Whether you voted for the President or not, but especially if you did, you don’t want to see him criticized or fail, because such criticism or failure might vicariously reflect poorly upon you as a U.S. citizen or voter or one-time supporter.  If I am right about this—and I am convinced that I am—we need to work hard (maybe get therapy) as a nation to shed that baggage, and understand that politicians are like chameleons that can fool any us on a given day.  I look back at the Vietnam War, Clinton’s military excursions, Bush’s wars and ask hard questions.  In every case, I see that as a nation, we started asking the hard questions late in the game; we started holding our Presidents accountable late in the game.  And I think the very same thing is happening with President Obama; we’re not holding him accountable right now to the degree that we should given the benefit of hindsight that we have.

12.  If we as a nation instinctively believe, or conclude based on past experience, that we are unlikely to win the war in Libya—or even make things better there long term (i.e., Qadaffi is defeated but anarchy reigns or another bad actor takes the throne), then we deserve answers in advance to questions.  This would be true even if our economy was good.  But as it stands, in a sense we really do not have the resources to fight that war for an unknown group of fighters, because our economy is SO bad that nearly every thing we do on a national level is borrowed against what we hope [and pray ?] that our we and our children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren will be able to fork over to the government.

13.  So, back to the war in Libya:  Did we win in Vietnam ?  Have we won in Iraq ?  Have we won in Afghanistan ?  Have we even been able to project when we might win ?  Have we even been able to identify what the jihadists would accept less than total victory ?  (Whether it’s jihad against America, or jihad against Israel, the rant from the Muslims is always “death”.)  So, honestly, I am more than willing to listen to anyone who can articulate in simple, authentic, convincing terms why Obama’s war in Libya is going to end differently than Iraq and Afghanistan, just to name the other two ongoing conflicts.  Can anyone, please, point me to the reference material that can persuade me to wave the flag in unfettered support for the war in Libya ?  Does such reference material exist ?  If not, maybe the Administration can put their crystal ball on display across the internet.  Well, if the reference material isn’t there, and there is no crystal ball, and no one has enough confidence in their plan to subject themselves in writing to personal liability claims associated with these actions, then I think we can pretty much assume that folks are just shooting from the hip and hoping for the best.  Based on my perspective, we can do better than that, we should do better than that, and sometimes that means delaying the fight until another day, when we know more, and therefore can have the resources and resolve in place to actually accomplish a defined mission.

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Welcome! Who am I?

Anthony Clark Arend is Professor of Government and Foreign Service at Georgetown University and the Director of the Master of Science in Foreign Service in the Walsh School of Foreign Service.

Commentary and analysis at the intersection of international law and politics.