international analysis and commentary

Obama and the Libya blame game: free-riding allies?

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In a recent interview with The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg, President Obama accused America’s European allies of being “free riders.” He went on to say “I had more faith in the Europeans, given Libya’s proximity, being invested in the follow-up….” For Obama, Libya today is a “mess” because the US’ European allies -he singles out Britain and France – did not carry their share of the burden and stabilize Libya after the coalition air war in 2011 that led to the fall of Muammar Qaddafi.

Obama’s criticism is unfair, however, and it is simply inaccurate to label British and French action in Libya in 2011 as free riding. In fact, his comments should be seen as an attempt to cast blame on others for a problem that is at least in part of his administration’s own making.

The criticism is unfair because none of the members of the 2011 coalition paid sufficient attention to what would come after Qaddafi. Before the initiation of the air campaign the British and French governments made clear publicly that they did not envision a postwar military occupation. As David Cameron said in the House of Commons debate prior to the air campaign “This is different from Iraq. This is not going into a country and knocking over its Government, and then owning and being responsible for everything that happens subsequently. This is about protecting people and giving the Libyan people a chance to shape their own destiny.”

The United States had a great degree of leverage over Britain and France because of the unique assets it could contribute to the war. If the Obama administration felt a postwar occupation to be necessary, why did it not make European leadership of such an occupation a prerequisite to US involvement?

The post-war in Libya was simply not on Washington’s radar screen. Recent reporting suggests that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was overly optimistic about the prospects for a stable post-Qaddafi Libya, despite evidence to the contrary. Moreover, the Libyans were extremely sensitive about their sovereignty and bristled at even a minimal UN stabilization force. Finally, after Qaddafi’s fall, the Obama administration’s focus turned to the bloody civil war in Syria. In 2014 Obama recognized that the main lesson to be learned from Libya was the need to pose the question “Do we have an answer [for] the day after?”This was not a case of Europe shirking its response to chaos in Libya. It was a case of neither the US nor Europe recognizing the problem that would arise.

Obama’s criticism is also an inaccurate application of the term free-riding. The concept of free riding only applies if everyone agrees that a particular task needs to be performed and on how this is to be accomplished. Free-riding occurs when one of the actors that would benefit from the collective action necessary to solve the problem refrains from contributing. Free-riding logic does not apply in the particular instance of 2011 Libya. The British and French looked at the Iraq 2003 case and drew the lesson that large western occupations generate insurgencies and violence. This is evident in Cameron’s previously quoted statement that the Libyans would be responsible for their future. Given this view, Britain and France were not refusing to stabilize post-Qaddafi Libya hoping that the US would, they believed that a stabilizing force there would make things worse.

Perhaps Obama’s criticism was directed at European allies’ failure to stem the full-scale violence that has characterized Libya since 2014. The response of leading European states to the Libya crisis over the past two years still cannot be characterized as free-riding, however. First, European governments have been very much engaged in promoting a solution to the Libya crisis. The outcome of the December 2015 summit in Rome was a statement pressing the factions in Libya to support a unity government and pledging to support such a government. While these efforts have born little fruit so far, the Europeans  are indeed trying to bring peace to Libya. Second, while the US has been more active militarily in Libya than its European allies most recently, one reason for this is the view some European governments hold that military intervention is not a useful way to address the Islamic radical threat now present there. The Italian government, for example, has said that a military intervention in the absence of a request by a Libyan unity government would create far more problems than it would solve.

Obama’s claim that allies are “free-riders” off of the US effort in Libya is particularly striking given that the 2011 Libya air war has been rightly touted by then US Ambassador to NATO Ivo Daalder as an example of excellent allied burden sharing. Of course, Libyan refugee flows were a much bigger problem for Europe than for the United States. It is also true that the US provided critical assets and played the central role of eliminating Libya’s air defenses in the early part of the campaign. That said, the Europeans did bear their fair share of the burden in the Libya air campaign. Non-US NATO allies were responsible for 75% of sorties in the country and struck 90% of targets. In contrast, during the 1999 air campaign over Kosovo the US Air Force flew 30,000 out of 38,000 (78%) NATO sorties.

What difference does it make whether Obama criticizes or praises US allies for their contributions? First, in an age of austerity when European publics are more skeptical than ever of using force, it is easy for allies to look the other way when the US asks them to contribute to military operations. Unfairly criticizing allies is not likely to encourage them to contribute today or in the future. The White House Press Secretary seemed to recognize that the President had gone too far when he issued an apology to Britain on Friday (though he did not specifically address Obama’s claim that Britain and France were “free-riders”). Second, by criticizing our leading allies of freeriding, Obama is giving ammunition to those, such as leading Republican candidate Donald Trump, who argue that America’s allies cost more than they are worth.

In the end, it seems that a president who was elected on a promise to restore our relationships with our allies has done damage to them by unfairly and inaccurately criticizing them.