Illustration by Chris Nosenzo
Illustration by Chris Nosenzo

Casey Stengel reportedly once asked, after becoming manager of the hapless New York Mets, “Can’t anybody here play this game?” Much the same question applies to the U.S.-NATO military intervention in Libya, now in its fourth excruciating month.

Although it is sensible for the allies to remove the dangers posed by Muammar Qaddafi’s threatened return to international terrorism, to date there is little positive to say about the political leadership of the operation.

Last week, French authorities acknowledged parachuting “light weapons” (including machine guns and rocket launchers) to rebel forces in western Libya. The Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, immediately criticized the move, arguing that it violated a United Nations Security Council resolution from March that imposed an arms embargo on Libya.

France responded that it had authority to supply weapons to the rebels because of a subsequent council resolution authorizing military force to protect Libyan civilians, under the “responsibility to protect” doctrine. China, which with Russia had abstained on that resolution, sided with Moscow. Britain, meanwhile, disclosed that it was supplying the insurgents with body armor and uniforms, having earlier acknowledged sending military advisers to Libya to assist them.

Arming Terrorists

In a further development last week, Spanish officials expressed concern that weapons from forces loyal to Qaddafi were coming into the hands of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, known as AQIM. Either Qaddafi was conveying the weapons directly to help the group carry out terrorist attacks against the West, or his disintegrating forces were selling their arms to finance their post-Qaddafi way of life.

Either way, AQIM capabilities are being enhanced because of the inability of the U.S. and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization to bring the Libyan conflict to what we used to call “victory” in the less-nuanced, less-sophisticated days before President Barack Obama took office.

These most recent signs of incoherence in our Libyan intervention underscore the broader risks of failure there. Despite efforts to reset relations with Russia, which in several cases have been little short of appeasement, Moscow remains dissatisfied with U.S. policy. Indeed, Lavrov’s recent caustic comments about the Libyan operation suggest that the Obama administration’s approach is reaping what accommodation often produces: demands for yet more accommodation. Although Beijing hasn’t yet been as vocal in its criticism, the Chinese undoubtedly perceive the same U.S. weakness and indecisiveness.

Limited Exercise

Obama set the tone for this exercise in Libya at the outset. He limited the military mission to protecting civilians; by his own admission, he waited to act until the very last minute when rebel strongholds were under imminent attack; he declared publicly there would be no U.S. “boots on the ground”; and he insisted on advance approval by the UN Security Council and the Arab League.

Then, after U.S. forces dominated the first days of the “kinetic military activity,” his administration abruptly ceased most U.S. strike missions, even as it continued to supply the logistical, operational and intelligence backbone for air operations by NATO. By pretending to abdicate to our alliance partners, we behaved as if NATO hadn’t from its inception been U.S.-led and dominated, leaving our allies shaking their heads.

On March 18, Obama expressly said he wanted Qaddafi removed from power, but that we wouldn’t use force to do so: “We are not going to use force to go beyond a well-defined goal -- specifically, the protection of civilians in Libya.” This is the “responsibility to protect” doctrine, which countenances force for humanitarian purposes, at least as defined by those dropping the ordnance.

Errant Bombs

Subsequently, NATO strikes have killed one of Qaddafi’s children and three of his grandchildren, and the regime claims numerous other civilians have also died. NATO has admitted to mistakenly attacking rebel convoys on more than one occasion.

Even humanitarian interventions can cause tragedies.

This inherent confusion among our stated goals, the numerous restrictions imposed on NATO forces, and Obama’s unwillingness to do what is necessary -- namely, removing Qaddafi -- means that the Libyan operation has no end in sight.

Here is where the self-gratifying, morally smug concept of the “responsibility to protect” unravels. The dispute between Russia and France over the terms of Security Council resolutions isn’t legalistic quibbling about almost incomprehensible UN-speak. Instead, it reflects a real disagreement over what the appropriate and necessary action is, and equally importantly, who can authorize and control it.

Violating Arms Embargo

Improbably, Moscow actually has the better analysis; the resolution authorizing force to protect civilians reaffirmed the earlier arms embargo, meaning governments must adhere to both provisions, not choose between them. France’s interpretation requires arguing that the resolutions are ambiguous or internally contradictory, though that wouldn’t be a first for the Security Council.

The lesson Russia and China will learn is that Obama’s understanding of hard power and cold steel is inadequate at best, and that his leadership is in rhetoric rather than action. They will see the Libya episode as a further signal of the decline of U.S. resolve and of our capability to act decisively in distant lands.

The lesson for the U.S. is that it shouldn’t always ask permission from foreigners when pursuing its interests, but can ask forgiveness later if necessary. That, of course, is the conclusion Obama is least likely to derive. The absence of clear U.S. leadership on Libya has produced the current impasse, both diplomatically and militarily. Although NATO should ultimately prevail, it is wrenching that our president has caused so many of the problems we now confront.

(John Bolton, who served as ambassador to the United Nations in the administration of President George W. Bush, is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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To contact the editor responsible for this story: Max Berley at mberley@bloomberg.net.