Green Room

“Responsibility to Protect”: It May Not be Our Call

posted at 8:22 pm on March 20, 2011 by

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.

J.E. Dyer blogs at The Green Room, Commentary’s “contentions” and as The Optimistic Conservative.  She writes a weekly column for Patheos.

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But but but….Samantha Power swore up and down she had no influence on the Obama Administration foreign policy!

YehuditTX on March 21, 2011 at 12:25 AM

Yes, this turn of events in Libya and the nuances surrounding them are not good for the long term. Do we now have a President so full of himself that he will commit our troops whenever and where ever he decides? Is he/will he pick up a taste for this? Personally, I do not want our people at the disposal of the UN through Obama.

jeanie on March 21, 2011 at 8:23 AM

Bruce McQuain does not have a serious grasp of R2P. If he did he would not suggest that “We are agreeing that the UN can determine when and where we commit our military forces simply by invoking this principle.” He should also know about the Security Council Resolution which further established it as a recognized principle or norm, what that actually means, and how it is not a power on it’s own, and not a binding or compelling mechanism that undermines our sovereignty.

Omri Ceren’s article is much better and does lift the lid on it’s origins but it fails to cite the constituent parts behind the principle and only really looks at the issue as it may or may not apply to Cast Lead and Gaza…. the site he links to actually points out that it does not apply and explains why. If anything, the logic of R2P is better applied to Hamas rather than Israel in that case. The incubation stage for R4P took place long before Operation Cast Lead.

Your last question has already been answered in Gaza and in Georgia (where Russia attempted and failed to invoke R2P to justify its actions there). Burma and Sudan are other recent examples where R4P hovered over events but other paths were followed. Built into the concept of R4P is the notion that it should not be used if its implementation will not lead directly to the protection of civilians, be counterproductive to that aim, or merely exacerbate the conflict in question (which partly addresses Gaffney’s concern that intervention ends up making things worse). Intervention is a means and a last resort in the R4P toolbox as it should be.

At the time that R4P was coming up for a vote at the UN Security Council a few years ago there was a thoughtful and informative debate on R4P here.

I think the real issue about R4P and the situation in Libya is that there is a looming tension since R4P is limited in its ambitions to protecting civilians rather than being explicit justification for regime change or siding with one of the parties in a conflict. That limit might assuage some of the fears of R4P but it means that once civilians Libya are no longer threatened with ‘liquidation’ a new consensus about what happens next will need to be worked out outside of the R4P scope. I am sure that despite this tension certain governments are already setting in motion efforts in line with their public statements that the Colonel must go.

lexhamfox on March 21, 2011 at 1:45 PM

lexhamfox, nothing that happened before January 20 2009 (e.g., Georgia, Cast Lead) is a guide to how R2P or R4P will be invoked in the future.

J.E. Dyer on March 21, 2011 at 4:32 PM

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