“Responsibility to Protect”: It May Not be Our Call
posted at 8:22 pm on March 20, 2011 by J.E. Dyer
Bruce McQuain’s excellent post on “Responsibility to Protect,” or R2P, is followed by Omri Ceren’s thoughtful and well researched piece at Commentary’s “contentions” blog. (Frank Gaffney offers a related discussion at Big Peace.) Omri summarizes the history of R2P as a thematic project of NGOs that seek international action against Israel. His final paragraph poses one direct question, and one that’s implied by the development of the Libya intervention.
The Responsibility to Protect, in other words, is an international norm that has been incubated with eyes on Israel at least since Cast Lead. Now it’s being used as the basis for UN resolutions backed by French warplanes and American Tomahawks. How did that get in there?
How indeed? Josh Rogin’s summary at Foreign Policy (cited by Bruce McQuain) attributes the use of the R2P justification to “[Samantha] Power, [Gayle] Smith, and [Mike] McFaul … trying to figure out how the administration could implement R2P and what doing so would require of the White House.” Whatever machinations there were at the UN, Rogin thinks senior U.S. policymakers explicitly favored the move, even if they did not instigate it.
That addresses Omri’s direct question. The indirect question arises from President Obama’s handling of the Libya intervention. Obama has been very careful to state no positive (or “offensive”) objective – the kind of objective a coalition can’t be brought to agree on – for the no-fly zone operation. He has also emphasized the multilateral nature of the effort and downplayed U.S. leadership as thoroughly as possible. The no-fly zone may be established most efficiently with the use of U.S. forces, but the adoption of the policy was not achieved through American leadership.
Obama’s abdication of U.S. leadership puts the implications of “Responsibility to Protect” in a new light. The question now is whether U.S. participation is needed for the declaration and enforcement of a no-fly zone on the R2P principle. For a target country the size of Libya, our forces represent a convenience. But even for a nation with extensive territory, it’s not clear that U.S. capabilities are a necessity. It would have taken France and Britain longer to disable the Libyan air defense system, but they could certainly have done it themselves.
We still hold a veto on the UN Security Council; we could prevent the UN from authorizing a bumper crop of no-fly zones around the globe. We must hope Obama would use the veto to do so – and that regional coalitions would, like Obama and the other Western leaders, regard the imprimatur of the UN as indispensable. But they may not. France and Britain aren’t the only nations that will come up with reasons to use armed force abroad in the absence of American policy leadership.
The question about using R2P to “protect” Gaza (or other provinces in other disputed areas of the world) may not be whether the U.S. will agree to it and participate in it – Frank Gaffney’s question – but whether we are willing to actively prevent others from undertaking it.