The Genius of Military Multilateralism

What we are witnessing in Mali is the genius of Obama’s military doctrine. It is the most fitting example of international cooperation in terms of combating terrorism. He has eschewed the Bush foreign policy doctrine of military unilateralism, in favor of a more inclusive and effective multilateral military strategy. We witnessed just how effective such cooperation was in terms of removing Qaddafi from power and now we are seeing it applied to Mali.

We should begin by pointing out the negative consequences of intervening in Libya, one of them being the movement of Libyan arms caches across North Africa. This is a regrettable problem I feel the Obama administration did not adequately anticipate prior to the Libyan intervention. But I still believe it is rather premature to consider these moving weapons as dangerously destabilizing North Africa. We should recognize this as an issue of vague casualty, where a number of other factors, prior to the Libyan intervention, have destabilized North Africa and the Greater Middle East. The obvious factor is the Arab Spring, which had emboldened multiple elements of society ranging from secularists to Salafists to realize their political ends. This happened before the Libyan intervention and the death of Ambassador Stevens.

Another attributable factor related to the apparent instability in North Africa might be a change in how Al Qaeda operates. Having lost an essential base of operations in Afghanistan and the porous border region of Waziristan, in addition to having its chain of command literally decimated, Al Qaeda has been forced to disaggregate its structure to better withstand an increasingly effective series of attacks. This has had the effect of creating smaller yet more numerous terrorist havens in Somalia, Yemen, Algeria, and Libya. Al Qaeda might be leaner but it is still a transnational threat that has managed to adapt, rather successfully, to changing circumstances. And in an effort to assert itself as still being relevant, it has carried out or at least influenced terrorist attacks across North Africa and incited Islamist fervor in Morocco, Western Sahara, and Mali. Again, unsecured Libyan arms are not necessarily to blame for the sudden increase in violence and to claim they had a direct and lasting impact on regional conflicts already in motion is a spurious if not erroneous assumption. We must also recognize that the arms from Libya had very little to do with the terrorist attack in Algeria as it is becoming more and more apparent that such an operation was in the works for quite sometime.

Nevertheless, securing loose Libyan weapons should be an imperative for both the United States and Europe. The unique challenge these missing weapons pose to international security is effective grounds for cooperation between these two entities. Their increased cooperation is certainly the way to go. The United States cannot locate these weapons by itself. It will require the efforts of multiple countries, pooling together their intelligence and Special Operations resources to reign in this runaway horse of weapons.

It is still too early to observe the results of increased military cooperation  in North Africa. But if Mali and Libya are any indication of what multilateralism can accomplish, I am quite confident we will be pleased by the results. In Mali, the French have made significant progress in driving back Islamist elements and helping the Malian army reclaim lost territory. France is also doing the heavy lifting, committing 2500 troops. Yet the United States is playing an integral, albeit, ancillary military role as well. It has assisted French military operations by volunteering heavy cargo aircraft to transport French military equipment and has also provided drone-based intelligence to French military planners. The United States and France have demonstrated the value of multilateral military strategy. It is allowed to maintain our posture in North Africa while allowing our European ally to shoulder some of the burden. This had not only empowered the European community to do more but also has the added benefit of saving us money.

The true genius lies in the economical nature of this multilateral military strategy. Recognizing the exorbitant logistical costs associated with warfare, it would make sense to have multiple countries working together as opposed to one leading the charge. This allows each military to minimize their operational costs by needing to deploy less equipment and smaller numbers of troops. This was the genius of the NATO ISAF forces in Afghanistan. Multiple nations contributed to the war effort despite the fact the United States carried out the lion’s share of operations. But the invasion of Afghanistan was first and foremost, an American response to an attack upon its citizens. We had an incentive to monopolize the operations in Afghanistan because it was, for all intents and purposes, our war. So while one can say that Afghanistan is evidence of how ineffective multilateral military strategy can be, especially in the fight against terrorism, such a criticism ignores the fact that the United States decided to make Afghanistan, its war. I would encourage these critics to recall that World War II was, at its core, also a multilateral military campaign fought by France, Britain, the United States, the Soviet Union, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Korea, and China.

Thus, Obama is simply taking his cue from history. Our most successful victory in modern history, the defeat of the Nazis and the Empire of Japan, was also a shared victory. It is the best means of fighting conventional and makes sense when we are especially nervous about the motives of North Korea and Iran. Military unilateralism will not serve us well in the coming decades and will only work to drain our economic resources.

All too often in our debates about the deficit we tend to forget the immediate and residual economic impacts of engaging in two simultaneous wars. The combined spending related to both war efforts totaled to over a trillion dollars. Extraneous costs have also added to the deficit. They include post-combat operations drawdown operations, repairs of damaged vehicles, mental health counseling, training and equipping of new troops replacing ones leaving the military, and finalizing defense contracts.

Paying for these wars is not a one-time deal, where we right one check and everything is taken care of. We have just recently ended the war in Iraq and are still paying for the extraneous costs incurred by the conflict. Thus we not only spent more than a trillion dollars over the course of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan (which is still being fought) we also likely spent just as much taking care of extraneous costs associated with post-combat operations. These operations will not be finished overnight and costs to pay for them will not be paid in full in any singular moment. While war might not represent the lion’s share of our debt it still contributes to it nonetheless. But if can severely minimize that impact, by pursuing military multilateralism then I’m all for it.

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Categories: Defense, International Affairs, Terrorism, The Middle East

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