Sputtering Conservatives

The American Right-Wing Can’t Abide Multinational Military Action

Peter Juul dissects conservative rage over President Obama’s multilateral-led military intervention in Libya to reveal their many contradictions.

It didn’t take long for American conservatives to start criticizing President Barack Obama’s decision to intervene militarily in the conflict in Libya once UN-authorized military action began. And it won’t take long for them to start anew after the president’s prime time television address to the nation last night.

But their criticisms only expose their divisions on foreign policy. Neoconservatives such as William Kristol, Charles Krauthammer, and Max Boot support the use of force while blasting the Obama administration for its supposed “dithering” before committing limited U.S. military forces. Other conservatives, among them Joe Scarborough, George Will, and Richard Haass, argue that who controls Libya is neither an American national interest nor an American responsibility.

Then there are those politically motivated conservatives such as perennial presidential candidate and former speaker of the house Newt Gingrich, who attack President Obama for failing to intervene prior to the start of the air campaign and now attack him for intervening. Their common political interest—oppose anything the president is doing no matter what the issue.

But one thread seems to run through the majority of conservative responses to Operation Odyssey Dawn—they do not like how the Obama administration went about assembling the UN-approved coalition arrayed against Qaddafi’s efforts to slaughter his own people. From skeptics such as New York Times columnist Ross Douthat to neocons including Krauthammer to flip-floppers like Gingrich, it is clear that conservatives disdain the Obama administration’s multilateral approach to the Libya operation.

Many conservatives say that Obama is somehow abdicating American global leadership, forgoing clear objectives, or reducing the chances of success through his multilateral approach. But the logical consequence of this conservative rhetoric is that the United States winds up shouldering the burdens of global security on its own. When conservatives say they want the United States to “lead,” what they are really saying is that they want the United States to bear most, or perhaps all, of the costs of a potential course of action, not just the financial costs but including the killed and wounded.

First off, we should be clear about why conservatives object. President Obama made it clear what he was trying to accomplish with his multilateral approach in his weekly address: “This is how the international community should work—more nations, not just the United States, bearing the responsibility and cost of upholding peace and security.” President Obama’s approach of getting other nations to shoulder at least some of the responsibilities and costs of international security butts up directly against conservative emphasis on American primacy.

This emphasis is especially true of neoconservative thinking. In their seminal 1996 Foreign Affairs article outlining modern neoconservatism, William Kristol and Robert Kagan argued for American “benevolent global hegemony.” This hegemony, backed by military power far greater than its potential rivals, they wrote, “is the only reliable defense against a breakdown of peace and international order.”

Charles Krauthammer was even more explicit in a lecture delivered to the American Enterprise Institute eight years later: “The land mine that protects civilization from barbarism is not parchment but power, and in a unipolar world, American power—wielded, if necessary unilaterally.” Krauthammer’s was equally explicit in his antipathy toward multilateral approaches, because in his view “multilateralism imposed on Great Powers, and particularly on a unipolar power, is intended to restrain that power.”

From this perspective, it’s not so hard to see why President Obama’s multilateral approach, intended to spread the burdens and costs of upholding international security, is such an affront to neoconservatives. “Leadership” in their eyes means unilaterally assuming the burdens of international security—even if this allows other states to free-ride off our efforts.

Krauthammer himself sneeringly wrote that the Libya operation is “war as designed by Ivy League professor” and described the president himself as a “man who dithers over parchment.” But his real fury was over President Obama’s decision to share the burden and responsibility of action with coalition partners: “Yet at a time when the world is hungry for America to lead—no one has anything near our capabilities, experience, and resources—America is led by a man determined that it should not.” Krauthammer’s real problem is not so much with “leadership” as the fact that the United States is not assuming all the responsibility (and consequently the costs) of upholding international security.

But this implicit and sometimes explicit anti-burden sharing impulse is not confined to Krauthammer. Jamie Fly of the neoconservative Foreign Policy Initiative writes that President Obama’s willingness to hand off a lead role in operations over Libya “just adds to ongoing questions about the president’s capacity to lead.” And by “capacity to lead” Fly, like Krauthammer, means “assume all the burdens of global security.”

Similarly, a writer for the neoconservative Weekly Standard groused that Obama’s multilateral approach subordinated the United States to the United Nations. Stephen Hayes, best known for regurgitating the discredited “link” between Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda, wrote that Obama “furthered the perception that UN authorization is necessary for U.S. action.”

But the right’s disdain for President Obama’s multilateral approach isn’t confined to its neoconservative wing. Other conservatives simply cite or complain about the difficulties of coalition warfare, arguing that if a war is going to be won it will be won unilaterally. While they do not explicitly share the positive commitment to unilateralism and American primacy of neoconservatives, these conservatives imply that there is no practical alternative to unilateral American action.

Examples number one and two are The New York Times’s two conservative columnists, Ross Douthat and David Brooks. While Douthat is a skeptic of the intervention in Libya and admits the benefits of a multilateral approach such as burden sharing, he argues that unilateralism is the more effective approach. Similarly, Brooks has choice words of criticism—some fair, others not—for multilateral approaches, before winding up in the neocon camp by default.

“In reality, only the U.S. can do many of the tasks,” Brooks argues. “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… Multilateralism works best as a garment clothing American leadership.”

Most non-neocon conservatives will acknowledge the benefits of a multilateral approach before insisting that the problem is a lack of American “leadership.” Former George W. Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson thus writes of a “multilateral trade-off” between legitimacy and effectiveness, and chastises the Obama administration for its lack of “leadership.” Likewise, Kori Schake writes that the apparent squabbling between the coalition (that has now been largely resolved) is due to a “lack of leadership by the United States.”

But these criticisms wind up back in the same neoconservative position by default—the United States assuming the burdens of international security while others free ride. It’s telling that Schake cites the Iraq War of all things as an example of more successful multilateralism than President Obama’s Libya policy, despite the fact she acknowledges the contributions made by most countries were “token.”

The conservative reactions to President Obama’s multilateral approach to military action in Libya show just how opposed conservatives are to multilateral burden sharing. Neoconservatives are opposed in a highly ideological way because they want the United States to assume sole responsibility for international security and wield its power as it sees fit. Other conservatives take a less doctrinaire view, acknowledging the benefits of a multilateral approach but ultimately preferring unilateral American “leadership” rationalized by appeals to effectiveness.

In either case, the destination is the same—responsibility and costs to the United States and a free ride to the rest of the world.

President Obama’s multilateral instincts are correct in Libya. Other powers, particularly militarily capable ones like our European and NATO allies, must start to shoulder burdens for security in their own regions. The idea of having regional powers play a greater role in their own security and that of their regions goes back in progressive foreign policy thought to President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “Four Policemen” concept. It also, ironically, harkens back to Richard Nixon’s eponymous doctrine of assisting allies in the post-Vietnam era.

As President Obama and his cabinet note repeatedly, the United States boasts unique capabilities that will require it to, at times, take the lead on joint actions. But these capabilities should not require the United States to assume sole responsibility for all international security problems. While the United States remains the world’s dominant and leading power, it should not allow other countries to abuse our position by shifting the costs for their security responsibilities on the United States. The free ride is over.

Peter Juul is a Policy Analyst at the Center for American Progress.

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Peter Juul

Former Senior Policy Analyst