Saturday, March 26, 2011

The Post-American World? Not Yet.

. Saturday, March 26, 2011

Let's see what Peter Beinart has to say about Libya:

Some commentators love the Libya war; others hate it. But most agree that it’s profoundly unnatural that we were pushed into it by… France. Welcome to the post-American world.

Oh, my. An inauspicious beginning. Does it get any better?

America’s fiscal condition is terrifying and the Pentagon is fighting wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, trying to stay out of one with Iran, and keeping one eye on a rising China. I don’t know what it took to convince an obviously reluctant Robert Gates to permit American involvement in the Libyan no-fly zone, but it’s a reasonable bet that had Barack Obama not been able to promise that it would be a mostly European affair, Gates would now be a military analyst on Fox News.

Not so far. Dare I peek ahead?

So Obama is trying to do it on the sly, to reduce the costs of American foreign policy without reining in our ambition. In Afghanistan, he’s moving inexorably toward greater reliance on drones—just as Nixon turned to air power in the latter stages of Vietnam—because it’s cheaper in blood and treasure. And he’s trying to burden-share, just as Nixon tried to get regional allies like South Vietnam and the shah’s Iran to do more of the work of containing the USSR. The Libya operation is a good example of this. The White House’s humanitarian hawks don’t want a Srebrenica on their watch, but they know they need other countries to bear more of the load. Enter Nicolas Sarkozy.

Wait a second. Did using air power in Vietnam signal the "post-American world"? How about getting regional allies to help contain the USSR (whatever that means)? It seems like Beinart is abandoning his argument several paragraphs after he's made it.

What to make of this. Let's do some mental exercises to consider the plausible explanations for the patterns of foreign intervention in Libya. One is what Beinart has suggested: the US is being bullied by France into intervention, and the US's role in international affairs is now effectively over. That's one possibility. Another possibility is that Obama -- motivated perhaps by his advisors Samantha Power, Susan Rice, and Hillary Clinton, all of whom learned a lot from Bosnia/Kosovo and Rwanda -- wants to avoid another Srebrenica but isn't sure he has the domestic support for more interventions (although non-Rasmussan polls show more support for intervention), especially in the recalcitrant Congress. He also doesn't want to jeopardize the improved view of the U.S. (and himself personally) around the world, where citizens now approve of U.S.'s policy more than all other major powers.

How might he achieve that goal? Well, to appease domestic audiences he could push for other countries to share more of the costs of intervention, as well as let them make the loudest noises in favor of intervention. Enter Sarkozy. To get those countries to share more of the costs, he can give them some symbolic concessions -- like letting a Canadian head up the NATO command -- despite the fact that operations have been coordinated at US/NATO bases in Germany and Naples, Italy. To keep international approval high, he could push for UN and Arab League support for intervention rather than building an ad hoc coalition. To appease Congress he can frame this as a UN operation, rather than a US operation, and can point to the fact that no US troops will be in harm's way and the costs will be shared.

In other words, Obama can try to satisfy multiple audiences by working through the UN, NATO, and other allies. Does that mean the US's influence is waning? Maybe. But consider that the transition of operations to NATO is a victory for Obama. In the early days of the conflict, the U.S. flew the majority of sorties ("well more than half"). I read somewhere (but can't find the link now) that of the first 124 Tomahawk missiles fired by coalition forces, 122 of them came from the U.S. The other two were British. The French moved their aircraft carrier off the coast of Libya three days ago; the U.S. has had a carrier there since February. (The U.K. doesn't have any carriers to mobilize, although this is probably a rational choice.) The U.S., not NATO, is still conducting the airstrikes that protect civilians; NATO is just enforcing the no-fly zone, which is perhaps less difficult.

What does all this mean? It means that, in this particular case, Obama had a lot of reasons for letting Sarkozy speak the loudest. He had a lot of reasons for getting the UN and Arab League on board. He had a lot of reasons for pushing for other NATO members to share the costs of interventions. But that just demonstrates that he's politically savvy. Much of the heavy-lifting is still being done by the US, and that is likely to continue, although the Obama administration has made it clear that it wants to transition more of the costs onto France and the rest of NATO in the coming days. (Of course that, too, could be taken as evidence of the US's influence, although that's certainly not the only explanation.)

But there's no way to say that this represents the end of US influence. Instead, it's important to look at the political dynamics: Obama's domestic constraints, his desire to appease foreign as well as domestic audiences, and his wish to shift the costs of intervention onto others. It's a pretty clever play by Obama.


Phil Arena said...

Could not agree more. It's one thing to note that France's preferences may have influenced the policy choices of the US, quite another entirely to suggest that heralds the end of US influence.

We might expect hegemons to act through coalitions, and even to have junior coalition partners with more hawkish preferences encourage them to adopt more aggressive postures than they otherwise would. Scott Wolford has a great working paper showing precisely this.

We might also expect hegemons to be more likely to act through coalitions when their leaders are politically vulnerable. Wolford has another paper (this one co-authored with Emily Ritter) making this argument, and demonstrating strong empirical support for the primary implications of the theoretical model.

And after all, Obama is looking pretty politically vulnerable these days. Brendan Nyhan linked to a post recently from Margin of Error essentially arguing that our best guess about 2012 right now is that it will be a coin flip.

So the very behavior that Beihart takes as evidence of precisely the behavior one might very well expect from a hegemon with a leader who isn't sure about his prospects for reelection.

Kindred Winecoff said...

Those papers sound good. I'll have to look 'em up one of these days when I've got tons of free time. Heh.

Phil Arena said...

Yeah, any paper by Wolford is bound to be good. Except when he writes with that Arena guy, who totally drags him down. :p

I hear you on the free time thing. I'm so ready for summer, and it's not even April yet...

The Post-American World? Not Yet.




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