The Obama Doctrine is bad foreign policy

In his speech about Libya last night, President Obama articulated his thinking about intervention quite clearly – and it's quite clearly unacceptable.

After missteps addressing congressional concerns, President Obama has articulated clearly the goals, means, and duration of the US military action in Libya. Critics may say he did not address those issues, but he did – and the answers are not acceptable.

The president’s speech last night at the National Defense University articulated the Obama Doctrine on the use of US military force when America’s humanitarian interests may be at stake but an imminent threat to US security is not present.

The president made clear that the United States reserves the right to unilaterally use military force to address direct threats to “our people, our homeland, our allies, and our core interests.” Something less direct, but equally important to the president is at stake in Libya; but the United States is constrained, under the Obama Doctrine, to act in concert with other nations, on a more limited basis, to achieve key objectives.

Prior to allied air strikes, troops loyal to Muammar Qaddafi were quite close to crushing the popular uprising in Libya and massacring the opposition. By any reasonable reading of international human rights law, Qaddafi is culpable for human rights crimes on a grand scale, but why is it an American responsibility to respond?

Evolving standards

Before World War I, international law was quite clear that sovereigns were free to do whatever they chose to their citizens to maintain order and control, as long as their actions did not affect conditions in neighboring states.

Gradually, in the first half of the 20th century, this principle came down. This began after World War I with the creation of institutions like the International Labor Organization, whose core principles compel member states to guarantee freedom of association and by implication guarantee free speech.

The Holocaust and Nuremberg Trials ended the notion that national governments are compelled by international law to turn a blind eye when other national governments inflict atrocities. Over the past seven decades, governments of all stripes have articulated an elaborate web of international human rights law with limited remedies. The latter includes international courts and extraterritorial jurisdiction for domestic courts to bring to justice deposed leaders who commit crimes against humanity.

However, the pressing question is when do governments have a right and responsibility to intervene militarily against the actions of other governments that violate international human rights law, as is the case with Qaddafi.

Neither the United States nor an assembly of allies with comparable resources can be expected to police the world. More important, no national leader or legislature, under emerging international law has the wisdom or right to assume that authority.

In Mr. Obama’s mind, that wisdom and responsibility are logged in the UN Security Council and the collective mind of the Atlantic alliance supplemented by consent from neighboring governments in the region of the atrocity. In his speech, the president referenced the consent and resources of both NATO and several Arab states.

In Obama’s mind, the United States does not have the moral or legal authority to lead – even as it provides the bulk of, and most essential, military resources. The command structure must be within NATO; however, running a military action by international committee hardly fosters quick decisionmaking and is hardly the best formula for success.

Why, with a GDP and population larger than the United States, the European Union cannot carry the heaviest load is a question a succession of presidents has not been willing to press. Under the Obama Doctrine, the Europeans get to command US troops and spend US money to accomplish goals more central to their collective security – look at the map, Libya is a lot closer to France than Maine.

The president, recognizing the limits of intervention, has divided the task into two goals – 1) avoiding massacre and permitting the popular uprising the opportunity to prevail, and 2) removing Qaddafi – apparently because international authority in the form of UN resolutions only permits the former. To depose the tyrant and end atrocities, the US and its allies must rely on an arms embargo, freezing Libya’s foreign assets and similar economic measures. Yet those methods have questionable records of success.

Open-ended commitment

Hence, our commitment in Libya is open-ended – we stay as long as the threat of massacre is present and the allies want American troops. Meanwhile, getting rid of Qaddafi – a worthy and stated American goal – must rely on other, less-effective means. Without a permission slip from the UN, even covert actions to destabilize Qaddafi, though more palatable than air attacks, are illegal.

Should the conflict end in stalemate, the US will be stuck, as it was enforcing a no-fly zone over Iraq after the liberation of Kuwait in 1991, indefinitely enforcing another no-fly zone over Libya.

Under the Obama Doctrine, it appears that the US is committed to putting troops in harm’s way and bearing the heaviest financial costs as long as the coalition of NATO and selected Arab states want US troops. And the very nature of running a war by committee reduces the likelihood of success, extends the likely duration of the US commitment, and exacerbates the risks to US troops.

Simply, by compelling an open-ended commitment under international control and limited tools to resolve the conflict, the Obama Doctrine and the Libyan campaign are not good foreign policy.

Peter Morici is a professor at the Smith School of Business, University of Maryland, and former chief economist at the US International Trade Commission.

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