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Multilateral Wars of Choice

Can anyone really doubt that this affair will be perceived by people around the world as a United States-led operation, no matter what we say about it? ~Stephen Walt

Some people in the U.S. will insist on doubting this, just as Bush partisans and Iraq war supporters will maintain to this day that the “coalition of the willing” reflected the broad, multilateral nature of a principally U.S.-British invasion. At some point in the next few weeks or months, the U.S., France, and Britain are probably going to interpret the mandate of UNSCR 1973 in terms that no other government accepts and conclude that they have authorization to topple the Libyan government. They will engage in the sorts of torturous, tendentious misreadings of the text that war supporters used to wrap themselves in UNSCR 1441 all those years ago. Meanwhile, outside the U.S. and the few countries actively involved in the war, everyone will see this as a U.S.-led war despite the lengths to which the administration went to create a different impression.

Few Iraq war opponents seem to want to remember it now, but the Bush administration wanted to make its obsession with Iraq seem as if it were a reflection of the will of the “international community,” too. That was why Bush went through the procedural motions at the U.N., and it was why Powell was sent out to give that preposterous presentation, and it was why war supporters kept pretending that the war was principally a matter of eliminating Iraqi WMDs. As much as Bush and his allies may have loathed certain aspects of the U.N., they did grasp that the only pretext they had for starting a war against Iraq was under the auspices of enforcing U.N. resolutions.

Yes, there is a difference between then and now. Obviously, the initiative for the Iraq war came from Washington, and it could never have happened without the Bush administration’s decision to start a war, and on Libyan intervention the initiative came from elsewhere. If the U.S. is still going to be bearing a large part of the burden, and if that relatively large U.S. role is going to make the rest of the world associate the outcome in Libya with the U.S., I don’t understand how the lack of American initiative makes it any better for America. When Poles, Italians, and Spaniards lost soldiers in Iraq because their governments followed Bush’s lead against the wishes of their citizens, it wasn’t much consolation that their leaders had not been the prime movers behind the conflict. When Madrid commuters were blown up as a result of Spanish involvement in Iraq, it didn’t make it any better that Aznar had been only a bit player in the war coalition.

It is still American military resources that are being wasted, and it is still America’s reputation that is on the line. Of course, the U.S. is far more than a bit player in all this, and it is certain that the war would not have been possible politically or militarily had Obama not chosen it. It is their status as unnecessary wars of choice that the comparison between the wars in Iraq and Libya is strongest. It is a commonplace for politicians that plunge their governments into unnecessary wars to say that they did not seek the conflict, but whether they “sought” it or not they most definitely chose war.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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