The American Legion Magazine | 5.1.14
By Alan W. Dowd

Civil wars in Libya and Syria have revived the debate over military intervention in humanitarian crises.

President Barack Obama argues that “force can be justified on humanitarian grounds… responsible nations must embrace the role that militaries with a clear mandate can play to keep the peace.” In fact, he defended his decision to intervene militarily in Libya by citing “our responsibilities to our fellow human beings,” and concluding, “When our interests and values are at stake, we have a responsibility to act.”

Pointing to the tragedy in Syria, French President Francois Hollande has argued that the international community should “punish those who took the decision to harm the innocent,” adding, “International law must evolve with the times. It cannot serve as an excuse to allow mass murder.”

These pronouncements are an outgrowth of the “responsibility to protect” doctrine—“R2P” in the UN’s abbreviation-laden lexicon. As UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon explains, R2P holds that nation-states have an obligation “to protect their populations—whether citizens or not—from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity, and from their incitement.” R2P also aims “to help states succeed” and “meet one of their core responsibilities,” namely protecting their citizens.

All of that sounds eminently reasonable. Protecting one’s population from crimes against humanity seems like the minimum requirement for a civilized government, and helping weak and failing states live up to the obligations of governance is time (and money) well spent by the international community.

But if the first half of R2P is reasonable, the second is radical. According to Ban, UN members also have a “responsibility to respond in a timely and decisive manner…to help protect populations from the four listed crimes and violations.” 

In other words, R2P would oblige outside powers to intervene to prevent or stop those violations. As U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power recently said of the civil war in Syria, R2P “should have compelled…the international community to step in earlier, lend advice and assistance, and prevent the situation from reaching its current metastatic proportions.”[i]

As the secretary general concedes, understatedly, R2P “could have profound implications.”[ii]

Road to Damascus?

The R2P concept is not particularly new. In fact, it grew out of the international community’s painfully slow response to the ethno-religious war in Bosnia (which claimed some 200,000 lives between 1992 and 1995) and failure to respond at all to the machete massacre in Rwanda (which claimed 800,000 lives in 1994).  In the wake of those civil wars, then-UN Secretary General Kofi Annan argued for “timely intervention by the international community when death and suffering are being inflicted on large numbers of people.”[iii]

Genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and other crimes against humanity are not new phenomena, but the fusion of mass-murder and mass-communications—“the CNN effect,” as it’s been called—is. In other words, it’s easy to understand why R2P has gained traction in an age when man-made famine in Africa, ethnic cleansing in the Balkans and government-sponsored massacres in the Middle East are broadcast for the world to see in real time.

Consider Libya, where a NATO-led air armada intervened after Moammar Qaddafi threatened to exterminate his Benghazi-based opposition. Reasonable people disagree about the merits of intervening in Libya. Given that not intervening would likely have allowed Qaddafi to turn Libya into another Rwanda, a strong case can be made that NATO’s intervention prevented a massacre, which explains why many observers saw Libya as a test run for R2P.

R2P advocates expected NATO to round up and lead another posse when the Arab Spring revolt turned deadly in Syria. However, the humanitarian cavalry never materialized, which is difficult to understand given that Bashar Assad has turned Syria into another Bosnia. Indeed, Assad has done far worse to his people than Qaddafi did to his.

This inconsistency of application is one of the many problems with R2P. If the people of Benghazi and Kosovo are worthy of protection, then why aren’t the people of Damascus and Kigali?  And if the people of Damascus and Kigali are not worthy of a helping hand, why were the people of Benghazi and Kosovo?

Thankless Work

Beyond inconsistency of application, expecting—let alone requiring—members of the UN Security Council to intervene whenever a government fails to live up to the murky definition of “protecting” its population is problematic and downright dangerous for the world’s lone superpower.

First, R2P taken to its logical conclusion will increase the heavy burdens on a shrinking U.S. military, 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 is guided by U.S. policymakers, promotes U.S. goals, serves the national interest and helps the world’s unfortunates along the way is one thing. Doing it as handmaiden to the UN, International Criminal Court (ICC) and European Union (EU)—or just because CNN decides “something must be done”—is quite another.

That brings us to a second problem with R2P: When it comes to the trigger for intervention, who at the UN, ICC, EU or CNN decides what justifies an R2P intervention?

R2P advocates are quick to answer that an R2P intervention can be triggered only by genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing, crimes against humanity or inciting such actions. Of course, as horrible as they are, all of these are subjective terms. Just ask the Syrian government and the Free Syrian Army; Qaddafi’s henchmen and their Benghazi-based opposition; South Sudan and Sudan; the Taliban and NATO; the Egyptian military and the Muslim Brotherhood; Kosovo, Croatia, Bosnia and Serbia; Rwanda’s Hutus and Rwanda’s Tutsis; Russia and Chechnya; Saddam Hussein’s regime and its victims and those who liberated Saddam’s victims from Saddam’s regime.

Indeed, everyone from Prime Minister Tony Blair to Gen. Tommy Franks was accused of war crimes during the Iraq war.

After NATO intervened in Libya, the Russian Foreign Ministry called on the ICC to investigate “all cases of NATO bombing that caused civilian casualties.”[iv]

The ICC has conducted a “preliminary examination” of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan. “We have to check if crimes against humanity, war crimes or genocide have been committed,” the ICC prosecutor said in a Wall Street Journal interview.[v]

The effect of these farcical episodes is to make it less likely that Americans would ever embrace the R2P doctrine. The words of a British member of parliament seem apt: “If the world wants us to act as the international policeman, then let the world say so, because in the past when we have done so the world has not tended to thank us.”

Helping the Helpless

The purpose here is not to toss every use of military force into a soup of moral relativism. For most Americans, it’s easy to decipher the good guys from the bad guys, the use of force to stop a wrong from the use of force to commit a wrong, a legitimate act of war from a war crime. But that sort of common sense is not so common in the halls of the UN.

Nor is the purpose here to argue that the United States should never engage in humanitarian interventions. In fact, Americans have a proud history of helping the helpless. Among the places the U.S. military has intervened on humanitarian grounds are Libya (2011), Haiti (2004 and 1994), Liberia (2003), Kosovo and East Timor (1999), Bosnia (1995), Somalia (1992), Iraqi Kurdistan (1991), West Berlin (1948), Cuba (1898), and the list goes on.

Indeed, long before U.S. forces triaged postwar Bosnia, fed Somalia, protected the Kurds and Kosovars, and shielded Benghazi—long before President Obama declared that “force can be justified on humanitarian grounds”—President Theodore Roosevelt argued against “cold-blooded indifference to the misery of the oppressed.”[vi]Even when “our own interests are not greatly involved,” he concluded, there are times to act “in the interest of humanity at large.”[vii]

Of course, most U.S. interventions have strategic as well as humanitarian implications. In TR’s day, for instance, the war with Spain not only liberated the oppressed people of Cuba; it also ousted a hostile foreign power from the Western Hemisphere and strengthened America’s position in the Pacific. Likewise, the Berlin Airlift rescued a city from starvation while dealing a blow to Stalin.  

The point is this: Why the U.S. intervenes militarily—a shock to the conscience, a tug on the heartstrings, a threat to the national interest or some combination of these—should be determined by the president and Congress. It’s not the UN secretary general’s prerogative. Moreover, when and where the U.S. intervenes is up to the American people and their elected representatives—not some malleable UN mandate.

As our elected representatives watch the headlines, weigh the next humanitarian intervention and downsize the U.S. military, they would do well to heed TR’s counsel. “The cases in which we could interfere by force of arms,” he observed, “are necessarily very few.”

[i] Rick Gladstone and Nick Cumming-Bruce, “U.N. Leader Admits Failure to Halt Syrian Atrocities,” New York Times, September 11, 2013

[ii] All quotes from Ban Ki-moon taken from http://www.un.org/News/Press/docs/2008/sgsm11701.doc.htm

[iii] Kofi Annan, “Two concepts of sovereignty,” The Economist, September 18, 1999.

[iv] UPI, “Russia wants ICC to examine NATO bombings,” May 18, 2012.

[v] Daniel Schwammenthal, “Prosecuting American ‘war crimes,’” Wall Street Journal, November 26, 2009.

[vi] Quoted in Edmund Morris, The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt, p. 594.

[vii] Theodore Roosevelt, Annual Message to Congress, December 6, 1904