FrontPage | 3.31.11
By Alan W. Dowd

A growing number of observers—from here at FrontPage to NRO to Foreign Affairs—are calling the West’s intervention in Libya’s civil war a test run for the UN’s so-called “Responsibility to Protect” doctrine. The Responsibility to Protect (or R2P, as UN types call it) basically holds that nation-states have a responsibility “to protect their populations—whether citizens or not—from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity, and from their incitement,” in the words of UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon; and that UN member states have a “responsibility to respond in a timely and decisive manner…to help protect populations” when a nation-state commits one of these acts. As the secretary general concedes, R2P “could have profound implications.”

Genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing, crimes against humanity, mass-murder and state-sanctioned brutality are not unique to our times, of course. But the fusion of mass-murder and mass-communications—the CNN effect, as it was called in the 1990s—is. In other words, it’s easy to understand why R2P has gained traction in an age when man-made famine in Somalia, ethnic cleansing in the Balkans, and government massacres in the Middle East are broadcast for the all world to see—in real time. Moreover, it’s reasonable to expect governments not to murder their own people.

What’s more problematic is expecting—let alone requiring—members of the UN to intervene whenever a government fails to live up to the murky and malleable definition of “protecting” its population.

First, on the intervention side of the equation, R2P taken to its logical conclusion will increase the heavy burdens on the U.S. armed forces, while decreasing America’s freedom of action and independence. The U.S. military, after all, is already the world’s first responder and last line of defense. Playing this role in pursuit of an enlightened self-interest that promotes America’s goals while helping the world’s unfortunates along the way is one thing; doing it as handmaiden to the UN, EU or Arab League is quite another.

On the other side of the R2P equation—the trigger for intervention—who at the UN, ICC, Arab League or European Union decides what justifies an R2P intervention? R2P advocates are quick to answer that an R2P intervention can only be triggered by genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing, crimes against humanity or inciting such actions. Of course, all of these are subjective terms. Just ask Armenia and Turkey, Kosovo, Croatia, Bosnia and Serbia, Russia and Chechnya, the people of Sudan. Everyone from Tony Blair to Tommy Franks was accused of war crimes during the Iraq war. Today, Libya’s rebels and Libya’s government, NATO’s leaders and Khadafy’s henchmen, are all accusing each other of war crimes. This isn’t to say that there aren’t genuine cases of war crimes, genocide and the like in the world, but rather that Americans may define these terms differently than the bureaucrats who roam the UN.

Speaking of Khadafy, no one will cry over his overthrow or death. If anyone has forfeited his right to govern, it’s the thug who runs Libya. Still, that’s probably best decided by Libyans—unless or until Khadafy threatens the United States or its interests. But if Khadafy is guilty of violating R2P principles, what about Syria’s Assad, Sudan’s Bashir, Cuba’s Castro, Iran’s Ahmadinejad, North Korea’s Kim? The list could go on and on. In fact, if I made the list, it might include China’s leaders and Russia’s leaders (see Tiananmen, Tibet and Chechnya). If they made the list, it might include the United States or Estonia. If Kosovo made the list, it might include Serbia. If the Serbs made the list, it might include Kosovo. If Pakistan made the list, it might include India. If India made the list, it might include Pakistan. You get the point.

Moreover, what level of negligence or outright willfulness constitutes “failure to protect”—disproportionate death rates among different ethnic groups, mass-arrests, seizure of property? These sorts of things could be twisted to apply to the United States, especially in a world awash in moral relativism. Before scoffing at this, recall that Belgian lawyers tried to put U.S. commanders in the dock for failing to stop postwar looting in Iraq. One wonders where their outrage was when a bona fide war criminal reigned in Baghdad. But this points out one of the problems with many R2P advocates. They are surprisingly silent on the obvious cases: the Saddam Husseins and Kim Jong Ils and Fidel Castros of the world. It’s difficult to understand why.

Whatever their motives, it seems that advocates of R2P are opening the door to the further weakening of national sovereignty and the further weakening of the nation-state system—a system which has served America well. It pays to recall that the United States has thrived in the nation-state system. We were born into it, raised in it, grew to master and shape it, and today we benefit from it, sustain it and dominate it. When and if it ceases to be the main organizing structure for the world—if R2P seduces America into taking sides everywhere, weakening the responsibilities and benefits of sovereignty along the way—there is no guarantee that Americans will have the same position and place they enjoy today.