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US Role in Libya: Declining Hegemony?

Babjee Pothuraju is Research Assistant at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile.
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  • May 10, 2011

    The recent events in North Africa, especially Libya, have brought to the fore some striking facts about international politics. The events in Libya have shown how dictatorial regimes like that of Colonel Gaddafi have forcefully suppressed the genuine demands of people such as their participation in the decision-making process, constitutional reforms and also socio-economic parity. However, the most striking has been the response of the United States to the developments in Libya and the role played by this so-called ‘super power’ as the events have unfolded over the last few months. Contrary to popular perception that the US will play an active role in Libya, it has adopted a cautious approach towards these developments with President Obama outlining a limited role for the United States in the UN-authorised military intervention in Libya. Obama also stressed that “the purpose is not the military ouster of Muammar Gaddafi but the protection of Libyan civilians.”1 He further he insisted on the need to create conditions for other nations to take a lead role in the joint operation and prepare to provide necessary support for the international coalition in Libya. In other words, he has committed his nation to “act as part of an international coalition” rather than itself taking a front-runner role.2 This raises questions as to why the US did not show much interest in the Libyan crisis, what factors led to its playing a limited role, and further whether this is an indication of its declining hegemony?

    Various reasons can be identified as to why Obama acted rather slowly in Libya. To begin with, he is well aware of the situations in Afghanistan and Iraq where the US had taken a leading role but is struggling to dictate the eventual outcome. The Obama administration is bearing the brunt for the involvement that his predecessor had committed the US for and is looking for ways to pull out from these countries. At this juncture, committing the US for another Iraq- or Afghanistan like-situation is not in the interest of any American leader. Obama was therefore compelled to reassure the American public that the United States was not getting involved in another open-ended commitment. Nevertheless, even as Obama emphasized a limited US role in Libya, he argued that America had the responsibility to stop what he characterised as “a looming genocide in the Libyan city of Benghazi.”3 At the same time, he cautioned against the expectation that American troops will forcibly depose Gaddafi since it might “splinter the international coalition that has moved against the Libyan government.”4

    Secondly, there is an economic dimension. The ongoing wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have caused a huge burden to the American exchequer in terms of personnel and material support for these operations. Specifically, citing the case of Iraq, Obama added that the intervention in Iraq took more than the expected time, costing thousands of lives and the loss of nearly a trillion dollars.5 At the same time, it has created a trust-deficit about the motives of the US in intervening externally. Therefore, the Obama administration does not want to repeat the same in Libya. A reminder here is that the attacks of the Western forces in Libya have already cost millions of dollars. This figure may rise significantly if the operation continues longer, given that Britain and France have called for increased investments by the allies. In an analysis in March 2011, the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments estimated that the “Libyan no-fly zone could cost $100 million to $300 million per week”.6 This indicates that even if the US plays a limited role, the overall burden to the economy will remain high. However, the US is not in a position to meet the same for it has been facing a recession since 2007 and has only recently started its economic recovery. Committing the US at this critical juncture to another war would definitely erode the recovery. Thus, Obama was hesitant to pursue a risky venture in Libya.

    Thirdly, there are political reasons that pulled the Obama administration back. The 2012 presidential elections are approaching and the campaign for the same will start soon. The main election campaign issues are yet unknown and any wrong move at this crucial phase by the Democratic Party will definitely lead to increased troubles for the presidential candidate from the Party. Further, there was a marginal reduction in the confidence of people for the Democratic Party during the 2010 Congressional elections and moves are on to regain the lost confidence. As a result, President Obama could not afford to miss a chance that can bring his party into prominence provided that action is sure to yield the desired results. That confidence had not been realised during the early days of the Libyan crisis.

    There are also arguments about the larger question of the decline of US hegemony. But, it will be naïve to conclude that the civil war in Libya has exposed the decline in US hegemony in international affairs. After the atrocities started in Libya, everyone looked towards the US for support and the announcement that it would check the human rights violations committed by the Gaddafi regime. Further, though the joint operation was launched by British and French forces, the tactical support provided by the US has considerably assisted these coalitional forces. Though the US has not taken a leading role in enforcing the no-fly zone, it has been a major actor in the NATO-led operations. In fact, without the US air power, neither France nor Britain could have enforced the no-fly operation. Accordingly, Obama justified the operation arguing that the United States had a moral responsibility to stop violence and in this endeavour he is backed by an international mandate and a broad coalition. At the same time, he announced that American ground troops would not be part of the operation.7

    Here, there seem to be some implied motives other than humanitarian for the US to intervene in Libya. Libya is strategically located in the ‘Greater Middle East’ at the confluence of Asia, Europe and Africa and also along the main sea-lanes of the Mediterranean. It is also a rich source of oil resources and, according to one estimate, “it contributes more than three times the amount of oil to the world market than Yemen, Jordan and Sudan combined.”8 These points highlight the real motives for the Obama administration’s selective intervention though these were not declared openly. At the same time, the civil war in Libya and Western intervention in the same is an indication of the US recognition of the reality that the world is moving towards multi-polarity and it has to accommodate the interests of other countries. Even Obama’s statements on multilaterialism indicate his rationality.9

    While there have been diverse justifications for external intervention, the UN-sanctioned and NATO-led operation in Libya is an instance where the US has taken calculated moves instead of intervening unilaterally. This can be attributed to the globalising and transforming 21st century in which power has been shifting towards a rising Asia and the US is preparing to cope with this reality. As President Obama outlined in his speech at the National Defense University in Washington, “Real leadership creates conditions and coalitions for others to step up as well; to work with allies and partners so that they bear their share of the burden and pay their share of the costs; and to see that the principles of justice and human dignity are upheld by all.”10