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Obama Doctrine of Multilateralism on the Line in Libya

Does President Obama’s cautious, limited approach to intervention in Libya augur a new U.S. role in world affairs?

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Inter Press Service

With the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) in command of military operations in Libya, U.S. President Barack Obama's doctrine of multilateralism is on the line.

"[W]ith America and its president less inclined to act alone and ever seeking ways to shift the job of keeping the peace globally to others, this Libya case should be viewed both in terms of what it means to the situation on the ground in that war torn country and as a possible test-case of a new approach to world affairs – one that Barack Obama would ultimately like to be able to take credit for leading," argued Carnegie Endowment for International Peace scholar David Rothkopf last week.

In the contentious lead-up to intervention, Obama was unwavering in his message that any U.S. action would have to be in concert with the international community. He especially insisted on "Arab leadership and participation" in military strikes against the North African country, where more than 330,000 people have been displaced by fighting between pro-democracy rebels and soldiers loyal to long-time Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi.

Domestic debate raged about imposing a no-fly zone (NFZ), as some sceptics warned that U.S. influence abroad would suffer if Washington mired itself militarily in yet another Muslim country.

"With two wars going in Iraq and Afghanistan, with huge deficits at home, with neo-isolationist voices rising from the Tea Party and other parts of the political spectrum, you might have guessed that intervention would not have occurred," Charles Kupchan, a senior fellow with the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), told IPS.

While allies like France and Britain were early supporters of military action, Washington was hesitant until the Arab League's last-minute endorsement. Then, within days, the U.S. helped to negotiate the passage of United Nations Security Council resolution 1973 authorising an NFZ, ostensibly to avert mass civilian casualties, and the hawks triumphed.

"The episode constitutes a victory for liberal interventionists" and "a sign of a continuing [domestic] appetite to expend blood and treasure in crises abroad – including a crisis like this, which does not pose a direct threat to the U.S.," Kupchan argued.

But as Obama's demands for international participation were met and public opinion polls showed popular support for U.S. action, the reluctant president was left with little choice, according to some observers.

"Not only do I think that this is a successful bout of multilateralism, but I think that the consensus-building that occurred elsewhere to some extent forced Obama's hand," Kupchan added.

"From the beginning, he said he would like other partners to do more in the world," he continued. "In many respects, they gave Obama what he wanted."

Writing in his 'Foreign Policy' blog Thursday, Rothkopf characterised the "abstainers" of resolution 1973 as being among the Libyan war's "victors" – a coalition with the potential to be an "alternative to the old trans-Atlantic alliance".

"The group, the BRICs [Brazil, Russia, India and China] plus Germany, may have sat on the sidelines for the vote but by imagining the outcome had they not done so, their potential power is made clear," he argued.

"China and Russia have veto power. And of the four countries most likely to join them as Security Council permanent members in the years ahead, three of them rounded out this group," he explained.

For some, Washington's late addition to the cacophony of voices calling for military intervention could be fodder for American declinists. For others, it is proof of the capitol's enduring influence.

"[I]f something is going to get done, [the U.S. is] going to have to be in the lead," Max Boot, a neoconservative foreign policy analyst at CFR, argued Wednesday, expressing scepticism about the transition to coalition command of military operations in Libya.

"And we saw that simply with the authorisation at the U.N. where, you know, Sarkozy, for example, was way out front in talking about the need to intervene, but it didn't happen until last week when Obama said, OK, now we're on board," he continued.

As one of NATO's 28 members and as part of the international coalition participating in the enforcement of Libya's NFZ and arms embargo – which now includes Arab League members Qatar and the United Arab Emirates – the White House says it will play a mere support role in subsequent phases of the operation.

But, Boot argued, "we're going to have the biggest say in terms of what happens no matter how Obama tries to camouflage it."

"[E]verybody knows we're the top dog here," he contended. "[Obama] can try to be, you know, humble and try to put the U.S. in the background as much as possible, but the reality is we are the number one power in the world."

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