Saturday, March 19, 2011

President Obama, Libya and the UN

President Barack Obama has been referred to, by sour neoconservatives, as another Jimmy Carter. That nonsensical smear began almost as soon as he took office. A more accurate perception of the Obama Presidency thus far I will argue is as a fulfillment of the first Bush Presidency -- George Bush the Elder, not George Bush the Younger (or, as I sometimes like to call that one, George Bush the Unwise).

President Barack Obama is unlike many card-carrying members of the Democratic Party establishment in that he is not of the liberal interventionist school of foreign policy. Instead, he is a political Realist, a philosophical reaction to his predecessor, with only faint hints of the good old liberal internationalist orthodoxy. The so-called "Smart Power." Previously, political realism was considered to be the province of moderate eastern Republicans, who had experience with managing power. Political realism, to be sure, isn't really so much a philosophy as it is an empirical science, a careful measurement of the achievable in the global theater. And so the mixture of just such as empirical approach -- often perceived as ideologically bloodless and cold by observers -- with some touches of classic liberal internationalism is attractive, rounding the edges, so to speak.

In an ideal world Obama, who has seen more of the Third World than most Presidents ever have or ever will, would be a liberal interventionist par excellence. His biography is pure unadulterated liberal internationalism, thoroughly organic to his nature. But we do not live in an ideal world; we live in the world bequeathed to us by President Bush, 43. The history of the United States foreign policy is, in many ways, a conversation of the philosophies of the Presidents. The international arena is, to borrow from the late Daniel Patrick Moynihan, in pandemonium (and it has been so for some time, lacking the odd stability supplied by the bilateral relations of the Cold War. Since then, Tribal and inter-ethnic conflicts have plagued the world, and Bush ultimately proved to be more of a divider than a uniter.

But Bush, 41 -- also, like Obama, a realist -- took the lead from Gorbachev's far-ahead-of-its-time speech before the General Assembly in 1988, arguing for a new world order in 1990. It was an extraordinary event in that Gorbachev was essentially giving up on the Cold War, offering, in its place, a world governed by international law, in which "pacta sunt servanda" -- treaties between nation's would be recognized. Bush the Elder's so-called new world order came, organically, via Woodrow Wilson's dream of a post-World War I international order in which traditional great power politics would be transcended, with an emphasis on collective security, democracy, and self-determination. George Bush the Elder and his group of realists found an organic American solution to Gorbachev's post-Cold War planet.

Bush conjured this uniquely American vision from a position of strength --we had just won the Cold War -- and Obama does it from his mandate, presiding over a new, multi-polar world. And multipolarity, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, is the new world order; multipolarity led by the moral vision of the United States.

America -- and let's be clear about this -- cannot afford to go at it alone in another unilateral war. Our massive debt, as Secretary of State Clinton told us last year, is an actual national security issue. That elementary fact has entirely eluded the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal -- allegedly the most fiscally responsible of American institutions. Then again, so polarized are they that they couldn't find anything to praise politically about Obama even if they tried. Even when Obama pays homage to those neocons -- like when he increased Afghan troop strength -- the President is met by deafening silence from the good old WSJ (Averted Gaze). While we cannot fight another land war in either Africa or Asia -- for further reference, see Secretary Gates' recent speech -- we can lead a coalition to help Libyan civilians from being slaughtered by that mad dog and his mercenaries. If Obama had listened to the impatient, infantile neoconniptions from the WSJ, we would be alone and in a Libyan tribal quagmire whereas now we have a mandate and global consensus and other billpayers on our side.

One of the more interesting stories that did not get any traction surrounding the no-fly zone imposed by the United Nations is that we now once again have a President that honors and uses that institution. "But one thing was made clear," says Colum Lynch in Foreign Policy. "The U.S. would use force to save lives in Libya only if it had the U.N. Security Council's imprimatur, and only if it had clear commitments that the U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki moon and a coalition of countries, including the Arab League, would play a central role in the mission."

It was wise of the President to go through the United Nations, particularly after the Arab League -- an institution that rarely goes against one of its members -- rebuked Quaddafi. That may have been the "game changer" on the part of President Obama. There were also, the New York Times reminds us, three powerful forces -- Hillary Clinton, Samantha Power and Ambassador Susan Rice -- behind Obama's policy shift:

The shift in the administration’s position — from strong words against Libya to action — was forced largely by the events beyond its control: the crumbling of the uprising raised the prospect that Colonel Qaddafi would remain in power to kill “many thousands,” as Mr. Obama said at the White House on Friday.

The change became possible, though, only after Mrs. Clinton joined Samantha Power, a senior aide at the National Security Council, and Susan Rice, Mr. Obama’s ambassador to the United Nations, who had been pressing the case for military action, according to senior administration officials speaking only on condition of anonymity. Ms. Power is a former journalist and human rights advocate; Ms. Rice was an Africa adviser to President Clinton when the United States failed to intervene to stop the Rwanda genocide, which Mr. Clinton has called his biggest regret.

Now, the three women were pushing for American intervention to stop a looming humanitarian catastrophe in Libya.

Interesting that women, who are nature's diplomats, had such a powerful role at this critical juncture in American foreign policy, in changing the president's mind.

That jocular, over-macho President Bush the Younger had no such respect for the United Nations -- except when it stopped the disastrous 2006 Israeli-Hezbollah War, where Israel lost the battle for public opinion and the terrorist group fought them to a sanguinary stalemate. Neocons like to laugh at the "ineffectiveness" of the United Nations, but that brutal six week conflict ended by Security Council resolution 1701. That has allowed Israel, which has never lost a war in the region, to regroup and re-examine what went wrong. It could have ended in a far more terrifying manner.

Post September 11, Bush the Younger veered deep into Id-territory. Then again, George Bush, 43, was too simple and one-dimensional a human personality to fully appreciate the larger meaning of the United Nations and what it could do if maneuvered and led by a respected and wise American President. One wonders what might have happened if Al Gore had been President and not that dunce. Alas. After all, as Daniel Patrick Moynihan reminded us in his magisterial "On the Law of Nations," the charter of the UN was constructed by British and American international lawyers and based on principles of democracy. From Robert Jewett:

When the cold war ended, we Americans found ourselves in an identity crisis. As James Wall noted recently ('Identity Crisis for Policymakers,' October 17) , having defined ourselves as militant anti-communists for so long, we don’t know how to conduct ourselves now that communism is no longer a threat. The invasion of Kuwait tempts us 'to define ourselves over against an enemy rather than by our ideals as a nation.'

However, policymakers do have a tradition to draw on when pondering an American response to the Mideast crisis: the law of nations. This idea, enshrined in our Constitution, was inspired by the Judeo-Christian vision of an impartial tribunal that would allow states to 'beat their swords into plowshares,' as Isaiah pictured it.

Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s new book, On the Law of Nations, shows that such law was 'the first principle of the American legal system.' The Declaration of Independence referred to it as 'the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God'; the Constitution explicitly calls for it: 'The Congress shall have power. . . To define and punish . . . Offenses against the Law of Nations" (article I, section 8) The Supreme Court has declared that 'international law is part of our law," which supports Moynihan’s contention that it "is not higher law or better law; it is existing law." American leaders labored hard in the earlier part of this century to enshrine these principles in the Covenant of the League of Nations and the Charter of the United Nations.

This no-fly zone -- supported by the United Nations, NATO and the Arab League -- brings the international community back to the place of great global expectations, the precipice, the same place give or take a few decades to we were when Bush the Elder was about to embark on the first Persian Gulf War. From Bloomberg:

“American leadership is essential, but that does not mean acting alone, he said. The U.S. will provide its ‘'unique capabilities’ to the coalition, ‘including enabling our European allies and Arab partners to effectively enforce a no- fly zone.’

‘Our British and French allies and members of the Arab League have already committed to take a leadership role in the enforcement of this resolution,’ the president said.

The goal of the international action is to protect Libyan civilians, Obama said.
‘Left unchecked, we have every reason to believe that Qaddafi would commit atrocities against his people,’ he said.

That sound familiar? In conclusion, as I write this post, former Secretary of State Warren Christopher has died. From BusinessWeek:

Reticent and unwavering, Christopher refocused U.S. foreign policy on the Middle East during Clinton’s first term. With Richard Holbrooke, who died in December, Christopher brokered the 1995 Dayton agreement ending the war in Bosnia. He restored diplomatic relations with Vietnam and pushed for the expansion of NATO to include countries of central and Eastern Europe.

“Warren was a diplomat’s diplomat -- talented, dedicated and exceptionally wise,” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in a statement today.
The times in which we are now living will call for more diplomacy and less unilateral warring from the United States of America. May America summon diplomats that are a match for these troubling times.

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