The Obama Administration’s Full Spectrum Diplomacy on Libya

The Obama administration is taking criticism in some quarters for a timid and pusillanimous response to the Libya crisis. Bill Kristol of The Weekly Standard and Leon Wieseltier of The New Republic have typified this line of criticism in recent articles attacking the Obama administration.  Kristol accused the administration of having a  “widespread attitude of passive self doubt.”  Wieseltier charged Obama with being “disinclined to use the power at his disposal” and diffidence to humanitarian crises.

Here is how you can these two are totally wrong.

Security Council resolution’s do not enforce themselves.  After the unanimous passage of a strong Security Council resolution on Libya on Saturday, there appears to be a full spectrum diplomatic push lead by the Obama administration to make sure that the provisions called for in the resolution are swiftly and effectively imposed.

Here in Washington, D.C. President Obama is hosting Ban Ki Moon at the White House. Libya is on top of the agenda (though they will also likely address the ongoing crisis in Cote D’Ivoire).  You can expect that the deteriorating humanitarian situation in Libya will be discussed at length.  The Security Council resolution calls upon all Member States, working together and acting in cooperation with the Secretary General, to facilitate and support the return of humanitarian agencies and make available humanitarian and related assistance in [Libya].”  Ban and the White House are likely to hammer out some of the details of how that humanitarian coordination might work.

After Ban’s meeting with the President, the Secretary General will tour the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and offer some public remarks.  The symbolism here is obviously very significant. The UN was created out of the ashes of the Holocaust, so to have the sitting Secretary General deliver remark there while there is an ongoing mass atrocities in Libya certainly helps to build political support —  here in the United States and around the world — for a robust response to the slaughter.

Meanwhile, in Geneva, the Secretary of State delivered remarks to the Human Rights Council this morning — the first time that a sitting Secretary of State has done so.  Her remarks praised the swift action the Council undertook earlier this week to condemn the violence in Libya. That resolution called for the suspension of Libya from the Human Rights Council, which requires support from two-thirds of the General Assembly.  There will be a vote tomorrow in New York.

Secretary Clinton is also holding a series of bi-lateral meetings with European heads of state and foreign ministers to discuss and coordinate the enforcement of the Security Council resolution, which calls for individuals targeted sanctions, an arms embargo, and the referral of the situation to the ICC.  Presumably she is also discussing what other measures the United States and Europe can take outside of the UN system through unilateral sanctions, and also how to best support Libyan opposition groups.

Needless to say, this kind of top level political support for the swift implementation of a Security Council resolution is rare.  Most of the time, the momentum ends the moment a Security Council resolution gets passed; governments consider a Security Council resolution to be the culmination of a diplomatic push, often pointing to a resolution as evidence that they are “doing something” about a crisis. But the reality is that these resolutions need sustained political support to actually be enforced. Without that, resolutions are worth the paper on which they are written.

You can tell that Libya is a top priority for the Obama administration because they are not spending this week patting themselves on the back for passing a strongly worded resolution. Rather, in Washington, Geneva, and elsewhere, the Obama administration is doing the hard and often overlooked work of making sure the resolution is effectively enforced.   That seems to be a nuance that those who call for bigger, “stronger” action on Libya seem to miss.