President Barack Obama last night boasted about American leadership in toppling Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi, reopening the debate about whether it was the United States or France and Britain that deserved credit for overthrowing Africa's longest ruling dictator.
"I and Americans took leadership in organizing an international coalition that made sure that we were able to -- without putting troops on the ground, at the cost of less than what we spent in two weeks in Iraq -- liberate a country that had been under the yoke of dictatorship for 40 years, got rid of a despot who had killed Americans," Obama said in the final presidential debate. "And as a consequence, despite this tragedy, you had tens of thousands of Libyans after the events in Benghazi marching and saying, ‘America's our friend.'"
"This is an example of -- of how we make choices, you know, when we went into Libya and we were able to immediately stop the massacre there because of the unique circumstances and the coalition that we had helped to organize, we also had to make sure that Muammar Qaddafi didn't stay there," he said. "Muammar Qaddafi had more American blood on his hands than any individual other than Osama bin Laden. And so we were going to make sure that we finished the job."
The American claim to having led the effort has always irritated the French and British, who first mounted a diplomatic campaign at the U.N. Security Council to impose a no-fly zone over Libya to prevent Qaddafi from using his aircraft to attack civilians. The United States initially refused to participate in that effort and the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Susan Rice, repeatedly criticized the European initiative as feckless.
One top European diplomat denounced Washington's claims of leadership over the Libya campaign as "revisionist history." This morning, Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen weighed in, arguing that Obama's claims of having led the coalition in Libya was among the most dishonest claims of the entire foreign policy debate.
President Obama "strongly suggested that he had America take the lead in Libya, organizing the air campaign that brought down Moammar Gaddafi. In fact, the French took the lead and the United States followed, which gave rise the phrase "leading from behind" -- an indictable offense, if you ask me. Obama also suggested that Gaddafi was some sort of American enemy when actually Washington had cut a deal with the Libyan strongman and then-secretary of state Condoleezza Rice had met with him in 2008."
So what actually happened? I covered the diplomatic deliberations over the war against Libya. And while the United States initially provided little diplomatic support to their European allies' push for a no-fly zone ( and largely kept them in the dark about internal U.S. deliberations on the use of force), it ultimately took charge of the diplomatic effort at the U.N., and pursued a far more aggressive military approach than that advocated by the Europeans.
In March, 2011, pro-Qaddafi forces advanced on the rebel stronghold of Benghazi, preparing to deliver a decisive blow that could have crushed the nascent armed resistance and led to the slaughter of large numbers of civilians.
Britain and France, with the backing of Lebanon, labored in solitude behind the scenes in New York to rally support for a resolution that would have imposed a no-fly zone over Libya, but received virtually no support from the United States.
"The Americans haven't yet defined their position on Libya," the frustrated then French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe told a French parliamentary foreign affairs committee on March 15, 2011, two daysbefore the council acted. "Never mind that there's European impotence, but what about American power? What about Russian power? What's China's power over Libya?"
France's irritation stemmed from a perception that President Obama's national security team was hesitant to participate in an air operation to protect civilians. Even as the White House labored in internal discussions toward considering a military approach, Rice peppered her colleagues in the Security Council with so many questions and conditions -- we won't go in without the Arabs, for instance -- that some suspected she was trying to kill off the initiative.
Two days before the air campaign was ultimately authorized, France's U.N. ambassador, Gerard Araud, informed Rice that European governments would push for a vote on a resolution creating a no-fly zone, with or without America's support.
Rice, who lacked instructions from Washington to rally support for a military response, was not prepared to support her European allies, according to council diplomats. "You're not going to drag us into your shitty war," Rice snapped, according to an account by a senior council diplomat. Araud shot back: "We are not a subsidiary of the United States."
But the winds shifted after the Arab League threw its support behind the no-fly zone and the prospects of a mass killing in eastern Libya grew, placing the United States in the position of having to choose whether to back a military response, or step aside.
Following the conversation between Rice and Araud, the United States held a high-level teleconference with Obama's top national security team, including Rice and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who had just met with Arab leaders, agreed to intervene. Rice, who had a deep skepticism about the European approach, mounted a far more aggressive campaign for a resolution authorizing air strikes against Libyan forces to prevent the slaughter of civilians. Within two days, Rice had secured narrow 10-5 vote in favor of military force, underscoring the tenuous international support, but sufficient to launch the air war, which ultimately helped the rebels over throw Qaddafi.
A senior administration official said that the off-color encounter with Araud didn't "ring a bell" with Rice. But the official defended Rice's handling of the Libya file. The British and French were unaware that at the time she was questioning the wisdom of their approach -- which she called a "naked no-fly zone" -- that she was arguing for far tougher action in the White House, and that she had discretely advised her staff weeks earlier to draft a resolution authorizing sweeping military powers, according to the senior U.S. diplomat. (The contents of the draft have never been published.)
"There were some colleagues who were supportive of action who quite frankly thought we were trying to poison this, that we were trying to up the ante so far that we blew it up," Rice told me last year. "But we were dead serious and we believed this couldn't be half hearted. It had to be for real if it was worth doing."
Fair enough. But the notion that the United States led the U.N. effort in Libya continues to grate on the nerves of some European diplomats who felt the Americans left their closest allies in the dark until the final decision to act.
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Woah. Who could imagine that a Republican presidential candidate would pledge to go to the United Nations for lessons on fighting the war-on-terror?
Sure, Mitt Romney said in the final foreign policy phase of the debates that he'll "go after the bad guys" and ‘kill them to take them out of the picture."
But once he's done taking down al Qaeda's lieutenants, Romney said he would look to the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) -- a department long criticized by Republican hardliners -- for a plan to counter extremism in the Muslim world.
"We can't kill our way out of this mess. We're going to have to put in place a very comprehensive and robust strategy to help the ... world of Islam and other parts of the world, reject this radical violent extremism, which is -- it's certainly not on the run," Romney said. "And how we do that? A group of Arab scholars came together, organized by the U.N., to look at how we can help the -- the world reject these -- these terrorists. And the answer they came up was this:"
"One, more economic development. We should key our foreign aid, our direct foreign investment and that of our friends -- we should coordinate it to make sure that we -- we push back and give them more economic development. Number two, better education. Number three, gender equality. Number four, the rule of law. We have to help these nations create civil societies."
Those prescriptions for change come straight out of The Arab Development Report, which was first published by the United Nations Development Program in 2002 and championed by the agency's then-executive director Mark Malloch Brown. It brought together about 200 scholars, policymakers, and opinion leaders from the Arab world and asked them to propose ways to improve the lives of ordinary people in the Muslim World.
The report's findings have long been controversial in the Arab world, however, and U.N. leaders -- including former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan and current U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon -- have done little to compel Arab leaders to abide by them.
But since the Arab Spring, Ban has cited the U.N. publication of the annual report as evidence that the United Nations had been committed to democratic change in the region -- even though the Arab world's despots, including former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Tunisian leader Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, were routinely lauded as peacemakers.
Romney's embrace of the UNDP initiative also marks a remarkable break for Republicans, who have clashed with UNDP over its program on North Korea, which was shut down in 2007 following allegations by the George W. Bush administration that a $3.7 million annual program was improperly funneling hard currency to the regime. The program has since been reopened under stricter regulations.
Romney did take some swipes at President Barack Obama for pursuing a diplomatic process at the United Nations, where more than a year's worth of efforts have failed to get President Bashar al-Assad to step down from power. "What I'm afraid of is we've watched over the past year or so, first the president saying, well we'll let the U.N. deal with it. And Assad -- excuse me, Kofi Annan -- came in and said we're going to try to have a ceasefire. That didn't work. Then it went to the Russians and said, let's see if you can do something."
Romney sought to contrast his own approach, saying he would support efforts by regional powers -- including Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar -- to arm the Syrian rebels. But in the end, Romney placed strict limits on the use of U.S. power to get the job done. "I don't want to have our military involved in Syria. I don't think there is a necessity to put our military in Syria at this stage. I don't anticipate that in the future," he said. "As I indicated, our objectives are to replace Assad and to have in place a new government which is friendly to us, a responsible government, if possible. And I want to make sure they get armed and they have the arms necessary to defend themselves, but also to remove -- to remove Assad. But I do not want to see a military involvement on the part of our -- of our troops."
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President Barack Obama has placed multilateralism and the United Nations at the forefront of his foreign policy.
But he's just not that into it right now.
Earlier this year, Obama rebuffed a request by Ban Ki-moon to attend the international U.N. Summit on Sustainable Development in Rio de Janeiro. And next week, Obama will give short shrift to world leaders converging on midtown Manhattan for the annual diplo-talk fest that is called the U.N. General Debate and what most were hoping would allow a face-to-face meeting with the American president. As it turns out, they'll barely get a glimpse of him.
In what is scheduled to be one of the briefest presidential appearances at a U.N. General Assembly debate in recent memory, Obama will sit for a brief meeting with Ban, deliver his speech before foreign leaders, then head cross-town to speak at former President Bill Clinton's Global Initiative forum (a couple of hours after Governor Mitt Romney addresses the gathering), according to U.S. officials.
All those world leaders -- including Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who had been eager to press Obama to take a more confrontational approach to Iran; Egyptian President Mohamed Morsy, who infuriated Washington over his tepid first reaction to attacks on the U.S. embassy in Cairo; and French President Francois Hollande, who had expected to meet with Obama -- will have to wait for another opportunity.
"Historically, Obama has never liked big multilateral summits (he hates meeting EU leaders for example) so U.N. is no fun for him," Richard Gowan, a U.N. specialist at NYU's Center for International Coalition, said in a Twitter interview on Wednesday with Turtle Bay. "Once the big speech is complete, Obama doesn't get any electoral benefits from gabbing with other leaders."
He may have an election just around the corner, but Obama's U.N. diplomatic drive-by comes as the United States is confronted with a series of American national security crises abroad, including a major political, military, and human rights calamity in Syria.
Last week, U.S. embassies around the Islamic world were the subject of violent demonstrations, including an armed assault on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi that resulted in the death of U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans.
Obama's reticence to engage with world leaders in New York reflects a president in full campaign mode, keen to avoid any new foreign policy commitments or controversies, particularly on Iran, where the president is seeking to deflect increasingly vocal demands by Netanyahu to take a more confrontational approach to Iran's nuclear program.
Gowan said he anticipated Obama's U.N. speech to target American voters, offering tough condemnation of Iran, sharp criticism of Russia and China for their failure to support sanctions against Syria, but few new commitments. "What he won't do is make any big promises for second about climate change or international law," said Gowan.
Edward Luck, a U.N. historian and dean of the Joan B. Kroc School of Peace Studies at the University of San Diego, said such a brief appearance by a president of the United States, the host government of the United Nations, was extremely rare and political unwise.
"Such a sudden exit would be unusual, to say the least. I'm not sure, but it occurs to me that Reagan may not have come to the opening of the GA every year," Luck said. I recall Bush being quite active on the bilaterals, which matter for domestic political purposes as well as for international ones."
"The General Debate is a great place to look presidential, something that should benefit an incumbent in a close race. Even if Obama decided not to take any bilaterals, so that they would not appear to be politicized by the election, it would not be good form to skip the [secretary general's] lunch. That could easily be seen as a snub, when both hope to need to work with each other over the next four years. "
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Longtime Washington Post correspondent Colum Lynch reports on all things United Nations for Turtle Bay.