Why is Obama’s Libya war coalition the smallest in decades?

Paris Summit of international leaders implenting UN Security Council Resolution 1973, March 19, 2011.

From Josh Rogin, the Cable:  President Barack Obama has touted his emphasis on multilateralism in the U.S. military intervention in Libya, but, for political, operational, and legal reasons, Obama’s "coalition of the willing" is smaller than any major multilateral operation since the end of the Cold War.

The Cable compiled a chart listing all the countries that contributed at least some military assets to the five major military operations in which the United States participated in a coalition during the last 20 years: the 1991 Gulf War (32 countries participating), the 1995 Bosnia mission (24 countries), the 1999 Kosovo mission (19 countries), the 2002 invasion of Afghanistan (48 countries), and the 2003 invasion of Iraq (40 countries), at the height of the size of each coalition. As of today, only 15 countries, including the United States, have committed to providing a military contribution to the Libya war.

Experts quickly point out that all of these military interventions happened in different contexts. However, they added that the reason Obama’s Libya war coalition has less international involvement than all the others was also due to his administration’s behavior in the lead-up to the war, its approach to multilateralism, the speed with which it was put together, and the justifications for the war itself.

Michael O’Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, said that the administration’s effort to build the coalition was hampered by its stated desire to hand off the leadership of the Libya intervention to NATO.  

"[I]f you [focus on the handoff], you don’t deserve a lot of credit for leadership," he said. "Obama in his deference to [getting out of the lead] has not only wanted other countries to do as much as they could, he has essentially forgone his responsibility to build the coalition."

The Libya mission is, by definition, smaller in scale than Iraq or Afghanistan; and a no-fly zone doesn’t require as many countries as a full-on invasion, O’Hanlon pointed out. However, the relatively few Arab countries contributing military assets could pose a problem for the mission’s legitimacy.

Operation Odyssey Dawn now has three Muslim countries with actual military contributions –Qatar, Turkey, and the UAE. "The limits of Arab support are palpable and could be a growing concern in the days and weeks ahead," O’Hanlon said.  (photo: AFP/Getty)

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