One thing on which there seems to have been agreement during the monthlong debate about how the United States should respond to the uprisings in the Middle East -- in particular to the anti-Moammar Gadhafi rebels in Libya -- is that we must not act unilaterally.
It is a terrible thing, Barack Obama and his leaders have implied, for the United States to do anything by itself. We must have allies and the approval and imprimatur of some multinational institution -- it doesn't seem to matter much which one -- before we take anything in the nature of military action.
This is not an argument, but an impulse that can be defended as prudent. There is often some advantage in international affairs in acting with others.
But there's sometimes a downside, as well. Multilateral forces can be, in strict military terms, more trouble than they're worth. For example, some of our NATO allies in Afghanistan had such strict rules of engagement that they were hardly capable of self-defense.
More importantly, there is a cost to giving a veto to other countries. Critics of George W. Bush's decision to take military action in Iraq never really explained why it was so important that we get the permission of France and Germany. Nor is it clear what moral force would have been added to the cause by the approval of Russia and China.
And of course, our action in Iraq was not in any literal sense unilateral, contrary to what so many critics said then and journalists today casually assume. More than 30 countries participated in the invasion and occupation of Iraq. Thirty is not one.
The usual response to that inconvenient fact is that the other countries don't really count because the United States took the initiative and provided the majority of military assets.
Well, yes. What else would you expect when the United States, with 5 percent of the world's population, produces more than one-quarter of world economic output and, by most measures, has more than one-half of projectable military power? In such a world, the initiative usually will be left to the United States.
Some Iraq War critics who consider themselves sophisticated took to disparaging the contribution of our allies. This was patronizing and unfair to middle-sized nations, such as Poland, that suffered significant casualties and to small countries, such as Estonia (with a population slightly greater than Rhode Island's), whose contribution proportionate to population was substantial.
It's a foolish kind of anthropomorphism, applying the rules of a children's playground to international affairs, to say that America is acting like a bully when it takes the initiative. Or to say that we must act as if we are just one nation of 192, with a vote and moral standing no greater than anyone else's.
That's the rule, to be sure, in the United Nations General Assembly -- which is why Franklin Roosevelt was careful when he designed the U.N. to make sure that it had no real power. It's not an intelligent way to think about foreign affairs and military power in the real world.
Now, there is some reason for an American political leader to pay lip service to the notion of unilateralism. Americans tend to be queasy about military intervention -- now even more so, given our 10 years in Afghanistan and eight in Iraq -- and on balance, that is probably a good thing.
The problem comes when an American president takes the bias against unilateralism too far. Bill Clinton initially deferred to our European allies in responding to violence in the former Yugoslavia. But he felt obliged to take the initiative when they proved feckless.
He declined to seek approval in the U.N. Security Council, where it would have been vetoed by Russia, and sought the imprimatur of NATO instead. On Libya this year, Turkey indicated it would block the unanimity necessary for NATO action, so Obama went to the Security Council, where he got a resolution authorizing military action Thursday.
In effect, this was what Donald Rumsfeld called a coalition of the willing, and we got a multinational imprimatur because we persuaded the unwilling to abstain rather than to vote no. But it's possible that action will turn out to be too little too late, with Gadhafi poised to crush the rebels -- or too much too soon, committing us to a dragged-out land war.
Avoiding unilateralism may be helpful, but it can cost more than it's worth.