By Julia Pettengill
Leading advocates of the “Responsibility to Protect,” the principle justification for the UN-authorized Libyan intervention, like Ramesh Thakur, have argued that the Libyan conflict has brought the “…closer to being solidified as an actionable norm.” Yet the advance of this concept is by no means assured.
Indeed, the conduct of the Libyan campaign reveals the extent of the challenges which proponents of the R2P must address if the concept is to become more than an ad hoc justification for intervention. This will require consistent and forthright leadership from the international community as a whole, but also from President Obama in particular. This will no doubt prove challenging: the steps that need to be taken to do this will likely displease both the right and the left in the US, but are crucial if the R2P is to become a sustainable and intrinsic element in the international response to crises like Libya.
One of the key elements of the R2P in need of clarification is its remit. Many have mistakenly confused the R2P with humanitarian intervention, or view it as a license to meddle in the affairs of countries the UN doesn’t like. In fact, the R2P is a holistic concept, based on three pillars: 1) All states have a responsibility to protect their own populations; 2) the international community has an obligation to assist states which cannot exercise this responsibility; 3) the international community has an obligation to take all necessary putative measures—including, as a last resort, military intervention—to protect populations from war crimes, crimes against humanity or genocide if a state refuses to do so.
The preventative elements of the R2P are perhaps the least understood, and will require a commitment in resources from the US government which will do doubt make Tea Party conservatives uneasy. The Obama administration has already taken steps in this direction with the establishment of an Interagency Atrocities Prevention Board and a senior level post in the National Security Council to coordinate prevention and response as a whole-of-government effort. At a time of intense pressure to cut federal expenditure and reduce the overall size of government, it is understandable that conservatives might balk at such measures, yet ultimately short-sighted; the prevention of crises is, in the long run, far less expensive than the cost to global security or of military intervention.
At the same time, the R2P will be meaningless if it is not backed by credible promise that military intervention can be undertaken in response to the Gaddafis of the world. The believability of that stance, in turn, depends upon maintaining robust military capabilities. At a time when NATO allies like the UK are trimming the fat from already skeletal military budgets, it is particularly important that the US not follow suit. Congress must reject the $500 billion in defence cuts proposed for the upcoming Super Committee deficit reduction negotiations— a figure which would come on top of the $350 billion reduction in the defence budget already agreed in the August spending deal.
There must also be an honest reckoning of the extent to which future interventions can be conducted according to the “lead from behind” strategy favoured by President Obama during the course of the NATO operation. Anyone serious about advancing the R2P must acknowledge the crucial role of US leadership in such circumstances, both militarily and diplomatically. The initial absence of American leadership in the Libyan intervention contributed to the dragging-out of the operation: the rapid turnaround in fortunes which allowed the rebels to take control of Tripoli occurred in large part because of a stronger push by NATO, in concert with the rebels and with an increased American contribution.
R2P advocates must also consider and clarify the operational scope of such interventions. Confusion over the legitimacy of operational tactics such as targeting Gaddafi’s compound or coordinating with rebel forces curtailed the momentum achieved by rebel forces in the early stages of the uprising. In fact, the notion that NATO forces could not make these types of operational decisions relied upon an unduly limited interpretation of UN Resolution 1973, and is, in any case, illogical and counterproductive. This ambivalence lengthened the conflict, costing civilian lives as well as treasure, and the precedent it sets could dissuade the international community from undertaking future efforts to enforce the R2P.
The current UN formulation of the R2P rightly emphasizes the importance of multilateral cooperation in enforcing the principle, particularly regarding coercive actions like sanctions and military intervention. Libya represented a rare case of broad-based international agreement on the need for action, but was very much an exception to the long-standing tradition of obstruction by the authoritarian members of the Security Council, China and Russia. But would it really be justifiable to let a future genocide unfold because China and Russia would not consent to authorizing military force? The politicized Security Council hardly has a reassuring or reliable record on this front, and the Libyan case is not a sufficient refutation of the appalling inaction in Darfur, the Balkans and Rwanda. This question of legitimacy is the disturbing lacuna at the heart of the R2P movement which has yet to be adequately addressed.
Proponents of the R2P must craft a policy that is sustainable and legitimate— not a fantasy of internationalist purity. The R2P will always be subject to the flawed and often squalid realties of both domestic and international politics, but imperfect enforcement is better than none at all. The goal should be to sufficiently embed the concept into our reaction to international crises, so that it becomes increasingly difficult for perpetrators to commit mass atrocities, and for the international community to evade their responsibility to hold them to account. It’s a daunting challenge—and “leading from behind” is not an option.