Coordinate the Means but Not the Ends—Justifying U.S. and European Intervention in Libya
On March 28th, President Obama addressed the American public to explain Operation Odyssey Dawn—the ongoing military campaign in Libya—and shed some light on what pundits have termed the “Obama Doctrine.” But the speech was at times ambiguous and confusing: calling for the ouster of Moammar Gaddafi but stating that this was not the objective of the mission, making it clear the United States was not acting unilaterally, but not clarifying the U.S. role in the coalition. Representative of his usual political caution, the speech’s ambiguity reflects the mixed public sentiment on America’s proper role in Operation Odyssey Dawn. A USA Today poll showed a divided public about whether the U.S. should take a leading role (10%), a major but not leading role (29%), a minor role (36%) or withdraw altogether (22%). But one thing Obama did make clear was that he would “never hesitate to use our military swiftly, decisively, and unilaterally when necessary to defend our people, our homeland, our allies, and our core interests.” This bold, clear language was surely aimed toward the more hawkish members of the American public. But when he talked about protecting a city “nearly the size of Charlotte” from an unjust, cruel, and violent dictator, he was appealing to a wider audience. The argument that war is sometimes necessary to obtain justice (an emerging theme in the “Obama Doctrine”) is something that 74% of Americans agree with according the GMF’s Transatlantic Trends survey. A majority Republicans (95%), Independents (79%) and Democrats (66%) feel the same way. Being vague about the tactics and clear about the motivations makes good political sense given the public mood—even if it makes for questionable policy. But given Europe’s role in Libya, the American public is not Obama’s only audience. Transatlantic asymmetry regarding the use of force will surely have political consequences in Europe and potentially affect the future of the military operation. While the argument that war is sometimes necessary to obtain justice rings true for the U.S. general public (76%) and U.S. leaders (83%), the EU public (28%) and EU leaders (43%) are far less convinced. Furthermore, the EU public’s aversion toward war is consolidated across the political spectrum, as is the U.S. public’s justification. A notable exception is the UK where a majority of the public (61%) supports the use of force. It’s not surprising that the UK vociferously supported the no-fly zone, but the French and German responses are a little surprising. France, along with the UK, was the first to voice outright support for military intervention. This is perplexing given that only about one-in-six (17%) of the French public excuses war in the name of justice. In Germany, on the other hand, which abstained from UN Security Council Resolution 1973, about one quarter of the public (24%) see the need for the use of force in some cases. President Sarkozy might be reassured by the fact that the majority of the French public (68%) believes that NATO should be ready to act outside of Europe to defend members’ security. The German public is more apprehensive, with a slight majority (55%) in support of NATO meddling outside the continent. Expansion of NATO missions outside Europe enjoys the most support with the U.S. public (77%). These public sentiments help shed some light on why some leaders felt confident in taking action, but also highlight where the mission may begin to splinter. If the operation takes a turn for the worse and NATO members risk a protracted, ambiguous mission in a country torn by civil war, American and British belief that justice is being served in North Africa may very well keep them involved in the region long after public opinion forces continental European leaders to respond to what their public has felt strongly for years: war is never necessary to obtain justice. Obama and European leaders will have to carefully coordinate the means and the goals of this mission, but each side of the Atlantic will need a different justification to give the public.
Special thanks to Jerry Wohlgemuth, Program Intern for Transatlantic Trends, for doing much of the writing and research for this article
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