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
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
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?
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.
everyone from Prime Minister Tony Blair to Gen. Tommy Franks was accused of war
crimes during the Iraq war.
NATO intervened in Libya, the Russian Foreign Ministry called on the ICC to
investigate “all cases of NATO bombing that caused civilian casualties.”[iv]
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]
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
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.”
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
[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