From: The New York Times
The Problem With Partners
By DAVID BROOKS
These days we are all co-religionists in the church of multilateralism. The Iraq war reminded everybody not to embark on an international effort without a broad coalition.
Yet today, as an impeccably crafted multilateral force intervenes in Libya, certain old feelings are coming back to the surface. These feelings have been buried since the 1990s, when multilateral efforts failed in Kosovo, Rwanda and Iraq. They concern the structural weaknesses that bedevil multilateral efforts. They remind us that unilateralism may be no walk in the park, but multilateralism has its own characteristic problems, which are showing up already in Libya.
First, multilateral efforts are marked by opaque decision-making and strategic vagueness. It is hard to get leaders from different nations with different values to agree on a common course of action. When diplomats do achieve this, it is usually because they have arrived at artful fudges that allow leaders from different countries to read the same words in a U.N. resolution and understand them in different ways. The negotiation process to arrive at these fudges involves a long chain of secret discussions and it necessarily involves eliding issues that might blow everything up.
Sure enough, the decision-making process that led to the Libyan intervention was remarkably opaque. (It is still not clear why the Obama administration flipped from skepticism to resolve.) More important, the nations have not really defined what they hope to achieve.
Is the coalition trying to depose Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi? Are coalition forces trying to halt Qaddafi’s advances or weaken his government? Would the coalition allow Qaddafi to win so long as he didn’t massacre more civilians? Is it trying to create a partitioned Libya? Are we there to help the democratic tide across the region?
The members of the coalition could not agree on answers to any of these questions, so the purpose of the enterprise was left vague.
Second, leaders in multilateral efforts often obsess about the diplomatic process and ignore the realities on the ground. The reports describing how the Libyan intervention came about are filled with palace intrigue. They describe the different factions within the Obama administration, the jostling by France and Britain, the efforts to win over the Arab League. It’s not clear who was thinking about the realities in Libya.
Who are the rebels we are supporting? How weak is the Qaddafi government? How will Libyans react to a Western bombing campaign? Why should we think a no-fly zone will protect civilians when they never have in the past?
In this, as in so many previous multilateral efforts, the process blots out the substance. Diplomats become more interested in serving the global architecture than in engaging the actual facts on the ground.
Third, multilateral efforts are retarded and often immobilized by dispersed authority and a complicated decision-making process. They are slow to get off the ground because they have to get their most reluctant members on board. Once under way, they are slow to adapt to changing circumstances.
Sure enough, the world fiddled for weeks while Qaddafi mounted his successful counterinsurgency campaign. The coalition attacks are only days old, but already fissures are appearing. The Arab League is criticizing the early results. The French are not coordinating well with their allies. NATO leaders are even now embroiled in a debate about the operational command structure.
Fourth, multilateral forces often lose the war of morale and motivation. Most wars are fought by nations — by people aroused not only by common interests but by common passions, moralities and group loyalties. Multilateral campaigns rarely, on the other hand, arouse people. They are organized by elites, and propelled by calculation, not patriotism. No one wants to die for the Arab League, the United Nations or some temporary coalition of the willing.
In the Libyan campaign, Qaddafi’s defenders will be fighting for land, home, God and country. The multinational force will be organized by an acronym and motivated by a calibrated calculus to achieve a humanitarian end.
Finally, multilateral efforts are built around a fiction. The people who organize coalitions pretend that all the parties are sharing the burdens. In reality, only the U.S. can do many of the tasks. If the other nations falter, the U.S. will have to leap in and assume the entire burden. America’s partners go in knowing they do not bear ultimate responsibility for success or failure. Americans do.
All of this is not to say the world should do nothing while Qaddafi unleashes his demonic fury. Nor is this a defense of unilateralism. But we should not pretend we have found a superior way to fight a war. Multilateralism works best as a garment clothing American leadership. Besides, the legitimacy of a war is not established by how it is organized but by what it achieves.