A Western alliance finally launched a military attack against Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi’s regime. However, it is curious that the US, which most often takes the lead in resolving such international disputes, is letting France take the lead in Libya.
Although the US model for taking part in this intervention will not necessarily apply to every future international dispute, it does establish a new template for Washington’s interventions in future international crises.
In future, the key principle for US involvement in international disputes will be to not use ground forces in areas or countries that do not involve major interests. In 2003, the US used anti-terrorism and claims about weapons of mass destruction to attack Iraq, which remains plagued by guerrilla and terrorist attacks even though the US began to withdraw its troops last year.
The US also increased its troop presence in Afghanistan last year and even if that is not the reason behind the reluctance to send troops to Libya, a desire to not repeat past mistakes is understandable.
While the “war on terror” means that the US can claim that Iraq and Afghanistan are directly related to its national interest, Libya is not. This is the main reason why US President Barack Obama and US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton insisted they would not send ground forces to aid the anti-Qaddafi rebels in Libya.
Another future guiding principle is that the US will not take the lead if it can avoid doing so, preferring instead to let other countries lead. When former US president George H.W. Bush launched the first gulf war in 1991, he was supported by the UK, France, Germany, Japan and a number of Arab countries, who backed him either militarily, financially or at least lent their moral support.
However, when former US president George W. Bush launched the second gulf war in 2003, France vigorously opposed him and some US lawmakers were so incensed that they renamed french fries “freedom fries” at the restaurant on Capitol Hill.
This time around, France was first to recognize the provisional government of the Libyan opposition. Although the US was not happy, it did not say too much. Indeed, it acceded to French President Nicolas Sarkozy chairing the emergency summit in Paris and sent Clinton to Paris to support Sarkozy, giving the French much “face.” Moreover, the French Air Force struck first in the military action against Libya and was only then followed by the US naval and air forces. This will of course also help improve US-French relations.
Yet another important principle for future US intervention in international disputes is to try to obtain authorization for military action through a UN Security Council resolution, such as Resolution 1973, which authorized the Western allies to stop Qaddafi’s crackdown on the opposition and impose a no-fly zone over Libya. This resolution allowed NATO member states to send their naval and air forces so that the US would not be criticized for unilateralism.
The Obama administration’s biggest hope is that it will gain the support of Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and other countries in the Middle East in order to avoid protests from the region’s religious fundamentalists.
This is why Obama and Clinton invariably mention the UN and their respect for the opinions of their allies when they speak, claiming that Washington only wants to help the allies free the Libyans.
Obama and Clinton recently called on Qaddafi to obey the UN resolution and stop killing civilians or be compelled to do so by US miitary power. However, it goes without saying that the US is the real leader behind the Libyan war. Despite this, Washington has chosen to give all the credit to its allies, a rare and commendable change.
Obama has maintained a low profile in terms of US military operations against Libya. On the one hand, US national strength has declined and it can no longer handle two simultaneous wars, on the other, if he wants to be re-elected, Obama cannot afford an unnecessary war in Libya, especially a ground war. If the war damages the US economy, he will follow in the footsteps of the Bushes by winning the war and losing the election.
Edward Chen is a professor at Tamkang University’s Graduate Institute of American Studies.
TRANSLATED BY EDDY CHANG
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