By John Bolton
The opinions expressed are his own.
With President Obama’s Libya policy staggering from one embarrassment to another, last week he and Secretary of State Clinton outdid themselves. They publicly welcomed Russia’s effort to insert itself as a mediator, an act of such strategic myopia that it must leave even Moscow’s leadership speechless.
Permanent Security Council members Russia and China abstained on the initial resolution authorizing force to create a Libya no-fly zone and to protect innocent civilians. By not casting a veto, Russia thereby tacitly allowed military action to proceed. As they did, Russia repeatedly second-guessed and harshly criticized NATO’s operations. Now, as a mediator, Russia will, in effect, have the chance to rewrite the Council’s resolution according to its own lights.
Given the uncertain trumpet sounded by both Obama and NATO, and the still-inconclusive outcome of the “kinetic military action,” the reputation and credibility of U.S. and NATO, militarily and politically, have been gravely impaired. The President likely doesn’t appreciate these wounds as he leans over backwards not to be seen as the regime-changing unilateralist he imagined his predecessor to be.
We should hope that Russia fails. Mediation was never the correct answer here. NATO, once committed, must prevail by force of arms, as it still could with a modest demonstration of American leadership. Make no mistake: Welcoming Russian intercession between NATO and a military opponent like Libya is nothing less than a massive humiliation for the Western alliance. If the Obama Administration’s misguided worldview favors mediation, whatever happened to the likes of Sweden and Switzerland?
Not only does Russia now have the possibility of reshaping the Libyan morass to its own ends, it is also well-positioned for a dominant role in post-conflict Libya. From the outset, U.S. critics of the intervention raised legitimate questions about the bona fides of the Libyan opposition, embodied in the Transitional National Council (“TNC”), now recognized by over three dozen countries. Last Friday, the United States joined the crowd, while also unfreezing Libyan assets to make them available to the TNC.
But in the last four months neither America nor its NATO allies have successfully identified and strengthened (quietly or otherwise), a truly significant cadre of pro-Western voices in Libya. This failure increasingly risks that an ultimately victorious opposition will simply replace one rogue regime with another. Ousting Gaddafi is manifestly still vital and legitimate, given his defiant threat to return to international terrorism and possibly the pursuit of weapons of mass destruction. But it was always only half a strategy, with a concomitant necessity to select and sustain a desirable — or at least acceptable — alternative.
Inserting Russia into the middle of the Libyan war gives it an unmistakable advantage in shaping the TNC, and post-Gaddafi Libya more broadly. Moscow (along with Beijing) has a keen interest and now a real possibility to become far more involved in exploiting Libya’s oil and natural gas resources than at present. This opportunity is something Russia could never have achieved on its own. To be handed it by Obama and Clinton, utterly gratuitously, is breathtaking.
Russia today is a troublemaker, not ideologically as in the Cold War sense, but as a swaggering, international bully boy. Increasingly reverting to authoritarianism domestically, Vladimir Putin’s Russia is, among other things, seeking to re-establish hegemony within the former Soviet Union; meddling in the Middle East; and flying political cover for Iran’s nuclear-weapons program. Ironically, Russia’s international assertiveness cannot be sustained, given its aging, unhealthy and shrinking population and an economy resting on little more than oil and natural gas exports.
Strategically, the United States should be squeezing and disciplining Moscow, not caressing it. Instead, the Obama Administration’s “reset” policy has smacked of appeasement, backing down on missile defense facilities in Poland and the Czech Republic, abandoning efforts to bring Ukraine and Georgia closer to NATO, and signing the New START arms control treaty, an unforced error that will give Russia time and cover to rebuild its nuclear and ballistic missile capabilities under limits that constrain Washington far more than Moscow.
The Obama Administration’s weakness, exemplified in its Libya miscalculation, is generating close scrutiny in Russia and in the wider world. Sadly, America’s European friends are also exhibiting a profound fatigue and weakness in Libya and beyond. Some speculated, for example, that France, cozying up to Moscow, welcomed Russia’s mediation in order to foil Germany’s efforts to make itself Russia’s principal Western European partner.
How troubling and dangerous it is to see NATO members drifting toward Russia after largely waging and winning the Cold War in Europe precisely to keep it out of Moscow’s clutches. Now some are not only apparently seeking Moscow’s embrace, but the Obama Administration, in cases like Libya, is actively abetting Russia’s efforts.
The Kremlin will rightly see Obama’s welcoming of its Libya mediation ploy as yet another telling sign of American weakness and retreat. Similarly, America’s other international adversaries will take Obama’s mistake as opening even more opportunities for them that should deeply concern us. These adversaries, like Iran and North Korea, will perceive even less concern about U.S. efforts to constrain their nuclear and ballistic missile programs, thus accelerating the ongoing risk of even broader proliferation.
Political commentators routinely opine that Americans are not interested in national security issues. But if confronted with the dangers of a further sixteen months of Obama, compounded enormously by the prospect of four additional years, Americans should be far more sensible than the prognosticators give them credit for.
Photo: Russia’s Prime Minister Vladimir Putin meets Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi in Moscow, November 1, 2008. Gaddafi said on Saturday he wanted closer energy ties with Russia, shifting the emphasis away from the arms sales which until now have been at the core of their relationship. REUTERS/Alexander Natruskin