Tag: R2P

Taking Liberalism on Intervention Seriously: a 12-Step Program

500px-Coalition_action_against_Libya.svgEditor’s Note: This is a guest post by Tim Dunne. He is Research Director of the Asia-Pacific Centre for the Responsibility to Protect at the University of Queensland and the past editor of the European Journal of International Relations. tl;dr warning: ~2400 words.

In a recent lively and provocative post, Stephen Walt argues that liberal imperialists are like ‘neocons’ only more human rights-friendly. They are alike in the sense that both ‘are eager proponents for using American hard power’. And combined, these two sets of protagonists have been responsible for bad foreign policy decisions ‘to intervene in Iraq or nation-build in Afghanistan, and today’s drumbeat to do the same in Syria’.

To help cleanse the US policy community of liberal imperialist tendencies, Walt offers ’10 warning signs that you are a Liberal Imperialist’. If you fail the test, as I did, then you have the option of (1) coming out as an interventionist (2) engaging in a form of realist immersion therapy by reading texts about why interventions fail. ‘And if that doesn’t work, maybe we need some sort of 12-step program’.

The question I want to pose is whether failing the test commits you to being a liberal imperialist? Or does the particular identity construction creak and crack under scrutiny, such that it is possible to adopt a liberal position on intervention that does not ascribe to the folly and naiveté that is attributed to it?

To help address this question I’m going to offer an alternative 12-step program that critics of liberal thinking on intervention may want to enroll in. My principle reasoning is that Walt’s ‘warning signs’ lump together – and obfuscate – critical debates and distinctions within liberalism, which is why many liberals opposed the 2003 Iraq War just as they oppose a military escalation in Syria today. Some even plausibly argue that Libya came dangerously close to an illiberal intervention on the grounds that the mandate of protecting civilians morphed into the goal of regime change. Yet what no liberal countenances is ‘another Rwanda’ in which the great powers (individually and collectively) failed to take the decisive action that was being called for by the UN force commander on the ground in Kigali. Avoiding the twin problems of indifference and recklessness has been the driver of the intervention agenda that the UN has embarked upon since the turn of the new century. And this agenda has been drive forward by the search for an effective capacity to respond to mass atrocities that is anti-imperialist. I develop this point in stages 9-11 of the recovery plan. Continue reading


Lessons from Syria…thus far…

The violence in Syria is spiking. 1,600 killed in the past week and 100,000 new refugees in the past month. After a year-and-a-half of violence, the UN reports that there are now more than 230,000 refugees, 1.2 million internally displaced persons, more than 2.5 million in need of humanitarian aid. Lakhdar Brahimi, the new UN/Arab League envoy called the violence “staggering.” Arab foreign ministers meeting in Cairo yesterday condemned Assad’s “crimes against humanity.”

So what have we learned over the past year-and-a-half?

First, despite all the complaints about the era of hyper-interventionism and the fears of R2P run amok, the default response by the international community — especially in complex environments — tends to be restraint. Libya appears to be the exception, not the rule. Neither the Obama administration nor the U.S. military wants any part of an intervention in Syria, the Security Council is deadlocked leaving the UN Secretary General, his special envoy, and the UN observer missions little leverage to alter conditions on the ground. Lots of talk, lots of posturing, but not much effect. In all of these regards, Syria is no different than Bosnia in 1992, or 1993, or 1994.

Second, major external military intervention likely would have significant costs — the conflict would likely escalate and lead to spill-over effects.

Third, limited (or no) intervention also likely will have significant costs — the conflict has escalated and does havespill-over effects.

In other words, the best argument for the current international response to date is that its the least worst option. That may well change…

…because, fourth, it looks like Assad’s regime is likely to become even more ruthless in the weeks and months to come. All of our indicators of the likelihood of mass atrocity events are present in Syria — a minority regime that is under acute military, political, and economic distress and one that has engaged in prior mass atrocities/genocide. It really can get worse.

Jon Lee Anderson’s reporting on the gruesome events ten days ago:

What happened in Daraya follows a pattern that is becoming chillingly routine. Last Saturday, after a withering five-day bombardment, Syrian Army forces entered Daraya and conducted a “mopping-up” operation. What occurred there can only be imagined, but the results are visible in YouTube videos that have been uploaded by activists in the days since then: hundreds of bodies piled up inside houses, in basements, and in a mosque. Many of the bodies were those of young men of fighting age, but there were also children there, and at least one toddler. Many of the victims, as in so many other body-dumps showing up in the environs of Damascus in recent weeks, bore the telltale signs of bullets to the head, fired close-up, execution-style.

Finally, while tipping points are difficult to predict, Assad’s escalation of violence against civilians, if unchecked will generate a new wave of political demands on the United States and others to do more — probably a lot more. A lesson from Bosnia two decades ago is that conflict duration coupled with spikes in intensity of violence against civilians eventually alter the political, moral, and strategic calculations about intervention. This is where the new era of intervention does come in. It may make generals nervous and realists uncomfortable, but global attitudes and norms on civilian violence have changed. We may not live in a world where “Never Again” is sufficiently strong enough to mobilize preventive or early response, but we do live in a world where “Enough is enough” eventually is triggered — my sense is that it’s just a matter of time…and lives.

R2P and the “Double-Standard Problem”

Jean-Baptiste Jeangène Vilmer (writing at the Fair Observer) argues that there’s no double-standard problem because the Libyan intervention did not establish or reflect a generalized responsibility to protect.

The R2P is a slogan that has some media efficacy but a rather dubious legal existence. That does not prevent the majority of observers asserting that it was the basis of Resolution 1973, authorizing intervention in Libya. That is not true either. The Resolution reiterated the internal responsibility “of the Libyan authorities to protect the Libyan population”, but nowhere did it speak of an external responsibility of the international community to intervene. This does not imply that the concept did not play a role in the motivations of certain permanent members, only that it is not considered as a consensual “norm” worthy of being explicitly mentioned. 

The military intervention in Libya did not represent an implementation of a purportedly universal “responsibility to protect”, but an ad hoc consensus among powerful states. Moreover, it was motivated by both humanitarian reasons and national interests, as British Prime Minister David Cameron explained in his March 18 speeches evoking the security risk for Europe, posed by terrorist threats and potential migration pressure. It is also a question of moral image and political gain. Nicolas Sarkozy used the intervention to consolidate his presidential calibre and keep the failures of French diplomacy in Tunisia and Egypt out of the limelight.

I definitely agree that the intervention was an ad-hoc arrangement where a combination of principles, interests, and opportunities facilitated intervention, but I’ll leave the rest to international-law scholars.

Check it out.

NATO intervention in Syria Wouldn’t be Easy

That’s the takeaway from a new working paper by Brian Haggerty, a doctoral student at MIT. His conclusion:

The United States and its NATO allies no doubt possess the capabilities required to achieve some measure of air superiority over northwest Syria and to maintain patrols over population centers to defend them from some incursions by Syrian forces equipped with heavy weapons. But as this analysis shows, an intervention to establish only three safe havens, in Homs, Hama, and Idlib, linked to each other and to the Turkish border via a humanitarian corridor, would be a substantial military undertaking. Given Syria’s air defense capabilities, the ubiquity of its tanks, artillery, rockets, and mortars, and tens of thousands of al-Assad-regime allies willing to carry out acts of repression, it does not require any heroic assumptions to suggest that such an intervention would require greater resources, face greater risks, and have a lower probability of success, than any of NATO’s previous air campaigns in response to humanitarian crises in Bosnia, Kosovo, or Libya.

This conclusion is derived from two major considerations. First, Syria possesses
an air defense system with enough mobile surface-to-air missile systems that any attempt
to defend safe havens from the air would require a major, sustained suppression effort for
the duration of the campaign. This would not simply require a large expenditure of
resources up front in order to degrade Syria’s integrated air defense system (although
such a large expenditure would indeed be required); Syria’s strategic air defenses could
likely be degraded or destroyed relatively quickly. The problem is that Syria would still
possess large numbers of tactical mobile SAMs (some quite advanced) that the United
States and its NATO allies have historically had little success in destroying outright when
adversaries have failed to be anything less than cooperative…..

Second, the al-Assad regime still maintains enough strength on the ground,
whether elite elements of the Syrian Army, the thousands employed by its security and
intelligence services, or its shabiha militias, to ensure that determined allies of the regime
could still carry out attacks against civilians that would perpetuate Syria’s humanitarian
crisis. Even if NATO were willing to deploy enough strike aircraft to maintain 24-hour
coverage over safe havens in the northwest capable of engaging significant numbers of
Syrian fielded forces within short periods of time, it would still have only limited ability
to detect and identify hostile elements from the air. Crews flying strike coordination and
reconnaissance missions would have little ability to prevent the infiltration of Syrian
forces carrying small arms and capable of carrying out many of the repressive tactics that
have thus far contributed to Syria’s humanitarian crisis (e.g., the massacres at Houla and

Thus, despite a decade of advances in ISR technology since NATO operations
over Kosovo, the problem of emerging target detection and identification would still pose
a major challenge for NATO air forces without help from boots on the ground, and was
so even in the relatively permissive airspace over Libya. The “true worth” of air power, then, still appears largely to reside in its effectiveness when combined with highly trained
and capable ground forces. To hope for air power as a “low-risk” alternative to the use of
ground forces in Syria or future humanitarian interventions would thus be to
misunderstand the basis for air power’s relative success to date. 

You should read the whole thing, as Haggerty provides a nuanced and thoughtful analysis. My sense is that he’s basically right. Degrading and suppressing Syrian air defenses would be a major undertaking; NATO would need a significant ground presence of some sort to leverage its air assets against Syrian army operations. Indeed, the best argument in favor of an “easy” intervention comes down to the claim that NATO’s airpower would deter the Syrian military. But that didn’t happen in Libya, a country with far less robust military capabilities and well-trained conventional forces.

Retrenchment & Liberal Internationalism don’t really Fit Together (2): R2P


Here is part one, where I argued that international relations as a field has become increasingly uncomfortable with the America’s post-Cold War hegemony and the level of force used in the GWoT, but…

2. We’re drifting toward R2P

Simultaneously, we are elated that the Libya operation worked, (against all odds given the Iraq experience and what we know about foreign intervention in LDCs generally). Lots of Duck writers supported the intervention. (I found Jon Western’s arguments last spring particularly persuasive; some of my writing on Libya is here and here.) Even if you didn’t support it, and worried that it meant more ‘empire,’ it still tugged at your heartstrings to see Libyans fighting and dying against a nasty tyrant. So you probably supported the NATO intervention even though you didn’t want to.

We realize that dictatorships are extremely vulnerable only in short windows which the regime will close as quickly as possible with as much blood as necessary. If there is anytime that Syria or NK might switch to more humane governance, it looks like now, when the center is weak. As with Libya, there is a window of opportunity that is deeply tempting, despite our broad sense that the US is doing too much and killing too many people. But given how rare revolutions like Libya are, it feels ridiculous, almost immoral, to miss such a unique, human rights-improving opportunity on behalf of a generalized principle like retrenchment (‘make me a non-interventionist, but not yet’).

Further, there is growing body of evidence that intervention can actually work pretty well and most crucially reduce the killing. How many more times can you teach the Holocaust or Darfur or the Khmer Rouge or ‘rape as a weapon’ in class before you personally agree with R2P? For me this has been fairly central. I worry a lot about US ‘empire,’ but I find teaching the material that we do in IR to be so disturbing sometimes, that it makes me an unwanted interventionist. I often wonder how undergraduates must think of us as we calmly explain the ‘nuclear calculator,’ or how to gauge who is history’s worst genocidaire. So even if we broadly want US retrenchment, we are keen enough to realize that R2P is genuinely appealing and that the opportunities for it to be effective are both rare and short. Ie, if we don’t move quickly to help places like Libya and Syria when the rare opportunity arises, we leave them to yet further decades of repression. Who wants to explain that away? And realistically the only state with the ability to push through meaningful R2P interventions is the US.

In brief, the bulk of IR scholars today normatively wants two things increasingly at odds, I think: 1. a slowdown, if not end, of the GWoT – torture, indefinite detention, Guantanamo, drones, Islamophobia, national security state overkill, domestic militarism, and the relentless killing. 2. R2P – taking advantage of the momentary weakness of truly awful regimes to push through desperately needed liberal changes in the name of humanitarianism. The former results in the (much-wanted) demilitarization of US foreign policy and domestic culture, while the second requires a large, interventionist US military, because honestly, no one else can do really R2P besides the US.

I guess if you are Walt or Layne or Ron Paul, these aren’t in conflict. Realist ‘retrenchers’ think the second goal is fairly illusory, so they are comfortable foregoing it to get the sorely needed de-militarization of US life. But the work of Pinker, Goldstein, Western, the democratic peace, even the end of history, makes me more confident that humanitarian action can work and that at least minimally liberalized states can get along without killing each other or their own people. It is awfully tempting to think that just a little bit more exertion, a little more defense spending, a little more covert assistance could help push through desperately needed change in places like Syria or Zimbabwe…

But that’s exactly the ‘utopian’ attitude toward force that realists from Morgenthau to Walt would disparage, right? One small step leads to another to another, and pretty soon you’ve got US empire to handmaiden democracy everywhere all the time, with all the militarization, killing and other unintended consequences such a project must inevitably entail.

Does anyone else see these goals as an irresolvable dilemma? And what is the answer?

Cross-posted at Asian Security Blog.

Retrenchment & Liberal Internationalism don’t really Fit Together (1)

Taking Brian Rathbun’s advice, I was reading chapter 4 of Perception and Misperception, when it struck me that Jervis’ argument about values incongruity could be applied to the two most popular normative positions in IR today – that western power and international law can help reduce violence and nastiness in the world (R2P), and that a semi-imperial US is killing far too many people against a fairly minor threat and should retrench somewhat. But increasingly I think that retrenchment, which is traditionally associated with the left in IR (US ‘imperialism’), has become a realist position.
1. IR isn’t that conservative anymore

Both of these positions are arguably left-of-center, which is where I feel like our field is drifting. During the Cold War, IR was fairly conservative. At least US IR (not Europe though) broadly supported the Vietnam War, or at least we understood the theory of escalated punishment and falling dominoes that lay behind it. We knew what MAD, defection spirals, extended deterrence, etc. were, so we said freaky stuff like nuclear weapons are good and first strikes make sense. We thought détente was unlikely to work, because bipolarity was so stark and seemingly zero-sum. We broadly accepted that the USSR was a leninist-revisionist threat. (Yes there was post-Vietnam revisionism, but that was more a diplomatic history than IR phenomenon.) As a result realism was everywhere, and Waltz was king of the 80s along with Michael Jackson.

But then the USSR disappeared, and without a war, for no obvious IR reason. Realism couldn’t prove to the rest of the field’s satisfaction that it could explain what just happened (a blow from which I think realism has never really recovered), and there were no equivalent other threats to justify the enormous, continuing US military posture through the 90s. Nuclear weapons faded, so we in IR thankfully stopped talking as if we were Dr. Strangelove. Increasingly the post-Cold War US talked like an empire indispensible nation, which made us kind of nervous, although we did try to argue the US was a ‘benign hegemon.’

So we tried to direct that power towards humanitarian do-goodery like Bosnia and Kosovo, but then came 9/11 and the neocons. Liberal internationalism seemed to get hijacked out of nowhere by neocons who re-wrote US liberalism as a ‘national greatness’ agenda in which freedom and American nationalism elided into what really did start to look like empire. On top of that, the US couldn’t afford it all anyway. As MacDonald and Parent note, most of us in IR now think the US is in relative decline and retrenchment is pretty much inevitable.

So IR is drifting left – the USSR and nuclear theory are over, realism isn’t taught as the dominant paradigm anymore, our belief in liberalism does not make us American nationalist neocons (Washington is, but not us), and the size of the US defense budget and the globalist ambition of the US foreign policy elite go well beyond the requirements of unipolarity. Even though we study war, we hardly support it as the regular tool of US post-Cold War diplomacy that it has become (we’re too far from real DC power for that temptation). Contrary to what people in the humanities think, I don’t think we’re militarists or all that affectionate of the national security state.

So by any realist or even liberal definition of IR, the US is now far too activist and killing far too many people. To our credit, just about everyone in IR was uncomfortable with the Iraq War before it started. (Remember that ad in the NYT against the war?) It’s true we didn’t oppose it that much, but at least we didn’t become the cheerleaders for it as happened at the big op-ed pages and DC think-tanks. The national security state clampdown at home makes us fairly uncomfortable (especially as academics strongly committed to free speech), as does the inevitable nativism and militarism stirred up by a decade-plus of war. The US public’s indifference to the huge numbers of brown Muslims we have killed in the last decade is horrifying (‘we don’t do body-counts’), a point lots of Ducks like Vikash have made again and again. US basing is way beyond any reasonable threat assessment to the US homeland. My guess is that most of us not only empirically think retrenchment is coming, but also desperately want it too. We may have shared the neocon intoxication with US power for a few years after 9/11, but my sense is that IR now is really, really nervous about what the GWoT is doing to America. Again, we study war, but we’re not the Kagans.

Part 2, on why this conflict with our defense of R2P, will come in a few days.

Cross-posted at Asian Security Blog.

Hobgoblins of a Little Mind

The US does not negotiate with terrorist groups.*^

*This statement does not yet apply to the Haqqani Network in Pakistan; even though its founder and senior leadership have all been individually designated as terrorists. 

[ Oh, come on Vikash, the US negotiated with “reached out” to that group before Admiral Mullen’s testimony to Congress. Until that testimony we had no idea that  a group founded and led by people we call terrorists could actually be considered a terrorist “group.”  Sure the Haqqanis are vicious individually, but as a group they’re like the Cub Scouts. Seriously, though it’s not like the Haqqani Network is the same as Al Qaeda.  Anyway, if you designate the Haqqani Network as a terrorist organization that might mean that Pakistan would be declared a state sponsor of terror and that would be bad because … umm … our ally might stop cooperating with us in the War on Terror. ]

^This statement also does not apply to individual Al Qaeda linked militants who might be of some use to the US in overthrowing the government of Libya.

[ Look, my friend, if he is willing to work with NATO, we should overlook all the indiscretions of his youth, and hopefully he will also overlook the fact that we tortured him and his wife and then handed him over to the Libyan regime for even more torture.  We all know that Qaddafi was the brutal one, right? ]

The US has a Responsibility to Protect unarmed civilians from brutal repression by armed aircraft or ground units.* ** ^

*This offer does not apply to pro-democracy demonstrators who happen to live within shouting distance of a major US military base.

[ Hey! We honestly thought those screams were coming from a loud party.  We did our duty, we called the Saudis and the Emiratis and they said they’d take care of that “noise complaint” for us… and umm… they did. Okay, seriously, we can’t just intervene in the domestic affairs of our allies, especially one that hosts the 5th fleet. Our responsibility isn’t to protect all civilians yearning to be free, only the civilians who aren’t being oppressed by our own allies. ]

**This offer certainly doesn’t apply if you happen to be Palestinian.

[ Don’t even think about it…  Look, if an occupying power has the responsibility to protect civilians under international law as the UN Special Rapporteur is arguing, that would mean that the US also had … ummm, well … let’s not even go there.  R2P can only apply to slaughtering your own citizens, otherwise, well… it is just too broad and there are too many dead bodies and troubling cases to cite the R2P principle… why dig up old war crimes accusations? We’ll be done with that war in December anyway. You have to be realistic, sometimes a state has to use lethal violence to pacify a rebellious population — a little shock and awe. And in the end it doesn’t matter because we’re immune from war crimes charges. So let’s look forward, not backward. ]

^This R2P principle also does not apply to attacks by American drones on American citizens.

[ Stop it.  Yes, he was a 16 year old American citizen — boohoo — but he was also the son of a traitorous citizen we just terminated. By running away from his mother to go look for his crazy father in Yemen, it was almost inevitable that he would become an Al Qaeda terrorist.  Anyway, executing our own citizens with drone strikes is not a form of brutal repression that can in anyway be compared to Libyans massacring or potentially massacring unarmed citizens with helicopter gunships…  For one thing we’ve only murdered three of our own citizens (so far)… stop being intentionally thick, you know there aren’t enough dead bodies to meet the R2P threshold. And your desire to draw an equivalence is really pretty stupid. Let me make it very clear for you my dim witted friend: we can commit as many mini-atrocities as we want; even if we unleash the slaughter of half a million civilians in an illegal war, that will never add up to a mass atrocity and you can’t cite R2P. Right or wrong it doesn’t matter anyway, they’re dead, let’s move on and not dwell in the past… 

And before you start yakking about our complicity in helping Pakistan kill scores of their civilians, let me just stop you and say that as long as we say we are targeting militants, then what we are doing is completely legal. It is tragic that civilians get killed, but that is just what happens and we don’t lose sleep over it. And we don’t have to answer to you or anyone else about what we’re doing over there.

You liberals are so frustrating. First you say we can’t subcontract torture to Syria anymore, then you tell us Libya is off the rendition list because it’s going democratic and now you’re saying we shouldn’t just kill anyone we suspect with drones. Sheez! Thank god we still have our old pals in Ubeki-beki-beki-beki-stan to protect our nation and humanity from lawless barbarians. ]

Qaddafi, Intervention and R2P

I’ve been in the throes of finishing a book and other matters so I haven’t had a chance to blog much lately.

A couple of quick observations on the death of Qaddafi (assuming the reports are confirmed). First, he died with almost all of the country opposed to his rule and celebrating his death. Second, he was killed and his forces were defeated by indigenous forces with the support of NATO. While we have seen a good deal of criticism of NATO, US Libya policy, and of R2P (as a neo-imperialist enterprise) in the past several months, that criticism has tended to dismiss or diminish the fact that the effort to overthrow Qaddafi was fought by a broad coalition of Libyans with widespread Libyan public support –not just a handful of NATO states.

So let’s be clear, we would not be witnessing a celebration in Tripoli, Benghazi, Misratah and elsewhere today without the combined efforts of the Libyans themselves and the international community — motivated by the concept of R2P and the norms embedded in it. Qaddafi clearly had lost domestic as well as international legitimacy. As his forces converged on Benghazi in March a global coalition concluded that a mass atrocity event was imminent. That coalition included the Arab League, leading human rights and humanitarian organizations, as well as much of the rest of the world, and they backed the United Nations Security Council Resolution 1973. That coalition demanded and endorsed a robust NATO-led intervention to protect civilians and their collective efforts empowered local forces to resist and ultimately to prevail.

It is true that NATO angered many by moving beyond the mandate of UNSC Res 1973 and declaring regime change as one of its key objectives in the pursuit of protecting civilians. But, regime change was not only the objective of NATO, it was also the objective of what appears to be an overwhelming majority of Libyans. Many of whom believed that if Qaddafi had been able to stay in (or later return to) power he would have slaughtered his opponents, including those civilians sympathetic to the revolution.

Critics of the Libyan intervention == or any intervention tend to dismissively proclaim that its important to “Let the Libyans decide it for themselves.” That’s a cop out. What exactly does that mean? In the absence of NATO’s air campaign we would not be witnessing the celebrations today. The Libyans wanted to, but probably could not have, settled it by themselves.

Joshua Goldstein and I have a piece on humanitarian intervention that will be out in the next issue of Foreign Affairs — due out in the next day or two — in which we argue that there is a broader aspect to Libya and to humanitarian intervention. Intervention along with R2P, peacekeeping, and a broad range of civilian protection mechanisms and norms have contributed to a dramatic decline of violence around the globe. Joshua presents this more explicitly in his new book, Winning the War on War and Steve Pinker pads that discussion in his excellent book. In short, there is a reason global violence is down — and the ideas and norms embedded in R2P, peacekeeping, and transitional justice are working.

For what its worth, R2P at its core is a concept that articulates a redefinition of sovereignty. It entails responsibility as well as rights. When a leader commits crimes against humanity, war crimes, ethnic cleansing, or genocide, the rights and protections of sovereignty are lost.

This is a revolutionary idea. It is also remarkably young. Most of us who teach IR Theory begin with Realism and teach Thucydides and the Melian Dialogue. Realists like to use Thucydides to emphasize the enduring dimensions of Realist logic across a range of international orders and 2,500 years of history. I use it to demonstrate the remarkable youth of civilian protection mechanisms in global society.

I’m not so pollyanish to believe that the death of Qaddafi will lead to full compliance with R2P or that R2P will be able to end genocide or all atrocities. But it will and has stopped many. Critics point out that we still see Assad and Bashir acting today with impunity. Yes, but most of the world recognizes that their conduct is abhorrent. And, we no longer see Charles Taylor, Milosevic, Karadzic, Mladic, or Arkan. And after today, we no longer see Qaddafi. This has all happened in a remarkably short period of time. History may not have turned, but it may well be changing.


The banner image of the ICRtoP (International Coalition for the Responsibility to Protect) website  features a photo of seven boys under the protective gaze of a UN peacekeeper as he carries his bottled water, while other soldiers patrol ahead on the pathway that they all share together. From a structural perspective, the image is compelling because it situates the viewer as the rear-guard of the mission.

Unfortunately, there is absolutely no context provided for this image on the ICRtoP website — not even a photo credit [there is a photocredit on the “contact us” page].

Nevertheless, there are several details about the photo and the context in which it was taken that I believe are worth mentioning: First, the photo was taken by Eskinder Debebe on March 1, 2000 in the Becora district of Dili, East Timor. All of the adults in the photo are Portuguese soldiers supporting the UNTAET (UN Transitional Administration in East Timor) mission; there are no Timorese adults in the photo.  Second, although all of the soldiers on this mission were armed, there are no visible weapons on the soldier standing closest to the children. One might notice the handle of an assault rifle on the soldier ahead on the path in front of the children, if one examined the photo very carefully, but weapons are clearly not foregrounded in this image. In fact, the soldiers are wearing berets and baseball caps rather than helmets, again creating the image of paternal protection without reference to the violence that may accompany humanitarian intervention by foreign forces. Third, while Debebe took several other photos on this day for the UN, including photos of one of the Portuguese soldiers who is clearly of African (and/or possibly Brazilian) descent — that soldier is not visible in this image. Fourth, there were other photos of these children interacting with the soldiers, but this was the only one in which all of the boys are clothed. Fifth and related to the previous point, there are no buildings from the surrounding impoverished village, making it easier to focus on the lives of the children saved by the presence of these troops rather than the monumental and prolonged task of rebuilding and developing this area. Finally, there is no hint of the complex colonial and neo-colonial history of East Timor or the political maneuvering by regional powers that led to UNSC Resolution 1264 which brought the peacekeepers to Dili. Without careful research one would not even suspect that the soldiers are from the former colonial power in this region. In fact, there is no hint of politics at all in this pleasant scene; power is masked through paternal benevolence.

One might suppose that the selection of this particular photo as the banner image is just a fluke, but the same photo is also used as the cover image in the ICRtoP’s latest report — again without any attribution or context.  In fact, the same image is now used on over 200 websites.  The preference for this 11 year old photo — particularly for a website that discusses current interventions justified on the grounds of R2P is peculiar to say the least.

In the absence of any context, the image becomes an abstraction; it is an image of European soldiers, acting in the name of the international community and benevolently protecting a group of happy but poor, brown children in some nameless tropical locale. In other words, this is the new portrait of the white man’s burden.

Dan Drezner Denies Being a Cylon, Professes Love for Mainstream IR

We also talk about Libya, R2P, Wikileaks, gender, and why Dan should give critical theory a second chance despite how they left things.

I do feel compelled to explain the weirdness around 21:20. We had a tech fail (I blame the Cylons) and fixing it disrupted my original plan to cite my co-blogger Vikash Yadav on some very important insights in this post. So I asked Sang Ngo at BHTV to splice in a clip I recorded afterwards, making the shout-out. He obliged me, though despite his techno-wizardry it didn’t turn out quite as I’d hoped only because I was rather more sloshed at the end than in the middle… (also, watch how I try in vain to get my mouth around the term ‘territorial non-aggression norm’ at 44:35). But hey, it was late on a Saturday night, and don’t forget drinking while blogging heads is an Internet tradition.

Morality, R2P, the nature of conflict and the emerging “Obama Doctrine”

There’s been some really interesting posts here on R2P in the last few days. At the risk of kicking a dead horse – although I hardly think this horse is dead – I’d like to raise a few points. (I’ve actually been writing this post over the past few days, and was going to post it later in the week, but Obama’s speech tonight made me want to post it earlier. You know, because hasty blogging is always a good thing.)

Most of my thinking has been on the issue of consistency/inconsistency with regards to R2P. I think I agree with Charli, there is no consistency requirement when it comes to R2P. For better and for worse, the case presently being made for R2P in Libya is that the international community is acting where it can when it can. The better part of this is that it’s relatively easy to protect civilians from conventional military forces (tanks, planes, etc) and this is why I think we see the action in Libya. Boots on the ground are not required, and if they were, it’s clear that they’re probably not coming. As Obama said tonight, boots on the ground would entail a situation where the “dangers faced by our men and women in uniform would be far greater. So would the costs, and our share of the responsibility for what comes next.”

The worse part of this, as implied by Obama’s speech, is that it is still very hard to end civil wars/ethnic strife (such as that of Rwanda – which provoked so much soul-searching about humanitarian intervention in the first place). And this is why we aren’t really seeing any intervention in Côte d’Ivoire – because everyone knows it would be a hot mess.

This is unfortunate. As the International Crisis Group has indicated in a letter to the UN Security Council today specifying that things are going very badly, very quickly in Côte d’Ivoire.

The security and humanitarian situation in Côte d’Ivoire is rapidly deteriorating. Civil war in the country has been reignited; we are no longer warning of the risk of war, but urging swift action to halt the fighting and prevent ethnic cleansing and other mass atrocity crimes.
… the Security Council should immediately authorise military action to ensure the protection of the population by UNOCI or other authorised forces and to support President Alassane Ouattara and his government in exercising authority over the armed forces and ensuring the territorial integrity of the state….
According to the UN, 440 people have been killed and 500,000 have been forced to flee their homes. This toll is still growing. There are reports of sexual violence, summary execution and individuals being burnt alive. Gbagbo’s militias continue to perpetrate violence and organise road blocks controlled by armed men, and elements in the Ouattara camp have also been implicated in targeting civilians.

I think this situation answers the question that Jon raises in his post as to whether a threshold to act has been crossed. (Incidentally, I also agree with his conclusions on Libya, that it was likely a mass-atrocity by Gaddafi forces was about to be raised.)

So how can we morally defend the inconsistency of intervening in Libya and not Côte d’Ivoire? Is Obama’s pragmatism really a sufficient answer?

Well, as suggested above, Libya and Côte d’Ivoire are very different conflicts. Libya has been determined to be a conflict that can be solved from 10,000 feet. This is something that Western militaries are far more comfortable with because it clearly is much less of a risk to them AND they can avoid the very bad and messy pictures of boots on the ground which lend themselves to critiques of imperialism – if not just more images of western troops in another Middle Eastern country.

But I wonder if this means that R2P only lends itself to this kind of conflict? That we’re good to go for interventions where western forces can effectively bomb a conventional army into oblivion, but conflicts that require more direct and inherently risky intervention become an entirely different proposition. I think this is an obvious point – but it does point to the fact that anyone who seeks to make R2P a consistent norm is basically out of luck? That our inclination to “prevent, respond, rebuild” is going to be determined by the nature of the conflict rather than the need on the ground?

Certainly this is a concern that Obama alluded to and sought to answer in his speech:

In fact, much of the debate in Washington has put forward a false choice when it comes to Libya. On the one hand, some question why America should intervene at all – even in limited ways – in this distant land. They argue that there are many places in the world where innocent civilians face brutal violence at the hands of their government, and America should not be expected to police the world, particularly when we have so many pressing concerns here at home.
It is true that America cannot use our military wherever repression occurs. And given the costs and risks of intervention, we must always measure our interests against the need for action. But that cannot be an argument for never acting on behalf of what’s right. In this particular country – Libya; at this particular moment, we were faced with the prospect of violence on a horrific scale. We had a unique ability to stop that violence: an international mandate for action, a broad coalition prepared to join us, the support of Arab countries, and a plea for help from the Libyan people themselves. We also had the ability to stop Gaddafi’s forces in their tracks without putting American troops on the ground…

The question is whether or not this then jeopardizes the morality of the norm. Obama’s pragmatism suggests that we have a responsibility to protect, but only where it’s convenient. Only where (American) lives are not at stake. What kind of norm is that? As one commenter argues:

If the “responsibility to protect” is a sacred principle, shouldn’t it be applied everywhere? What about those peaceful demonstrators who are being shot at by the Syrian army? What about the civilians threatened by the fighting between partisans of Alassane Ouattara, the opposition leader who was elected president of Ivory Coast in November, and those of Laurent Gbagbo, who lost the election but refuses to leave? What about the Shia majority in Bahrain whose aspirations to social equality are brutally repressed by a Sunni dynasty with the help of Saudi Arabia?

In this sense, I think many of our (their) hesitations about R2P are about consistency. We worry about consistency because we like check-boxes. We like certainty. Perhaps it offers predictability. Or, as guest-Duck blogger Chris Brown has written (in his collection of essays) “one of the reasons why so many people look to developing rules that will constrain action is precisely because they do not trust the judgment of those who hold the great offices of state in the Western democracies” (adding that after Iraq, there are understandable  reasons for this mistrust.)

Worries about inconsistency suggest that we’re actually really worried about something different – than rather than circumstances, R2P occurs because of different motivations. Libya has oil and Côte d’Ivoire has cocoa. It’s not surprising that there are accusations of something fishy going on here.

I’m not sure what to say – is this a sorry comfort kind of post? We can only intervene where we can be responsible; only where it’s pragmatic. Sub-Saharan Africa, you’re probably out of luck. Fans of Obama and R2P are going to have to work out the very difficult morality of that.

Ultimately, for me, just because no one is likely to do anything in Côte d’Ivoire doesn’t mean Libya is illegitimate. However, the fact that another bloody and brutal war is clearly getting underway in another poor African country is also reminder of the very real limits of R2P, which neither compels states to act nor solves many of the central problems of HOW, WHEN and WHY we carry out humanitarian intervention. And that such interventions are never going to be consistent.

Will R2P Survive?

So here’s a question: How do we evaluate whether or not a humanitarian intervention is successful? The obvious difficulty is that the intervention alters history and we are left with running various counterfactual thought experiments.

Here’s the Obama administration’s take on what would have happened in the absence of intervention. According to Laura Rozen, Dennis Ross and Derek Chollet told reporters that:

“We were looking at ‘Srebrenica on steroids’ —the real or imminent possibility that up to a 100,000 people could be massacred, and everyone would blame us for it,” Ross explained, according to one attendee, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the administration is trying to keep its consultations private.

Russ Douthat dismisses the claim:

This is an audacious claim, to put it mildly. By way of comparison, in the Kosovo conflict, so often cited as a precedent for our Libyan intervention, the Serbian ethnic cleansing campaign may have claimed 10,000 lives, while the widely-respected Iraq Body Count projects suggests that between 100,000 and 110,000 civilians have been killed in the eight years since we invaded in Iraq.

Err, well, no. The Libyan counterfactual (i.e., what might have happened without international intervention) can not be evaluated “by comparison” with two cases of international intervention/war. The Serbs killed thousands after the NATO bombing began — if we’re going to use Kosovo, we have to evaluate it in light of the counterfactual: how many more might have been killed if Serbs had launched a full-on effort to retake Kosovo without NATO airstrikes?

But, Douthat’s failure to make the correct comparison notwithstanding, his criticism does raise a broader set of questions about the future of R2P. We all want to know how many people need to be at risk before an intervention is justified. How real, credible, and direct do the threats have to be? How do we measure imminence — a priori? The architects of R2P have addressed many of these issues and how they might be operationalized. For example, on the question of pillar 3, Charli is right R2P has a high threshold for intervention. But, even with all of these well articulated, I’ve argued that it will nonetheless be difficult politically to create a viable and sustainable doctrine of R2P that can only be demonstrated to have worked through the use of counterfactuals.

R2P emerged out of the failures to prevent the Rwandan genocide — a case in which almost everyone concludes the international community should have acted to stop the genocide. The consensus on Rwanda is easy because we know that 850,000 Tutsis were slaughtered and because we know through extensive analysis (again after the fact) that there probably were many things the international community could have done.

But, the question is what were the clear and direct signals of mass atrocities that were visible to U.S. and international decision makers during the very early days of the violence — how clear and credible were the reports of mass atrocities, how well were those reports understood and appreciated, and how clear were the strategies for international action?

Even the strongest advocates for early intervention in Rwanda concede that US and international decision makers missed early signals. For a variety of reasons, leading decision makers were unable to accurately interpret the signals in early-to-mid April 1994 as clear evidence of (an imminent) genocide. As the violence escalated and intensified over the first two-to-three weeks, the reports of the magnitude of violence gradually increased. By the third week of April, things were clear — but by then nearly 100,000 people were already dead.

In other words, the situation was murky in the first few days, but it clarified over time.

This raises the question, if you believe the international community should have intervened in Rwanda — and apparently most people believe it should have — when should it have done so? Should it have intervened on April 7 – 14 when the mass slaughter initially began but when the signals were still somewhat mixed and few really understood or appreciated the potential for genocide? Or should the international community have waited until later in April when the situation was clarified but after more than 100,000 civilians had already been killed?

It seems to me that the signals of impending mass atrocity violence were clearer, more direct, and more imminent on March 17 – 19, 2011 in Libya than on April 7 – 14, 1994 in Rwanda. In Libya, armored tank columns with air and naval support were advancing on Benghazi — a city of nearly one million. Qaddafi had weathered the initial wave of demonstrations, his forces had re-grouped and counterattacked, and were rapidly advancing to re-assert control over the country that had been lost three weeks earlier to the combined efforts of a spontaneous mass civil protest movement and an ill-defined, rag-tag assemblage of former military, police, and civilians that loosely coalesced into a new rebel military force. Furthermore, Qaddafi’s ranting speech further signaled an escalation of the threat to civilians in Benghazi especially because of the political link between civilians engaged in non-violent protest actions and the newly formed rebel militia.

It strikes me that Libya on March 17 and 18 was about as clear as it gets in real world situations to evidence (prior to the fact) of an imminent threat to civilian populations to invoke R2P. The fact that this is challenged doesn’t bode well for the future of R2P.

Libya and the Responsibility to Protect

I see there’s some naysaying about the use of force to protect civilians in Libya. Among various refrains is the claim that “Responsibility to Protect” (R2P) doctrine lacks moral strength if applied selectively: the
international community can’t legitimately go after Qaddafi if it won’t/can’t also go after every other dictator.

So just a reminder that the doctrine, as laid out by the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty and acknowledged as a legal principle in several multilateral documents, actually promotes military force for civilian protection not in every case where it might be merited, but rather only in limited circumstances mapping roughly onto just war theory.

The criteria include just cause (which I agree would be fulfilled in a case like North Korea or Bahrain) but also right authority (which in R2P requires multilateral consent – not feasible in Bahrain) and proportionality (requiring a judgment that the overall good to civilians outweigh the potential harm – unlikely in North Korea). In cases not meeting this threshold, the doctrine urges merely non-coercive protection measures, including humanitarian assistance and diplomacy.

In fact one of the key critiques of R2P is that the threshold for the use of force – which is in some cases the only effective response to unfolding crimes against humanity – is so unreasonably high as to render the doctrine useless for the cases in which it is most needed. So it was actually reassuring to see the international community act so relatively swiftly in the case of Libya, in contrast to its months and years of dithering in Kosovo and Bosnia, respectively, or its ultimate inaction in the case of Darfur. R2P as currently constituted includes no normative requirement of consistency.

Now whether or not the intervention was caused or facilitated by the R2P norm itself, that’s another question. Erik Voeten thinks not and is not even sure there is such a norm. My students will be writing their mid-term over it this week, and we’ll see what they come up with.

[cross-posted at Lawyers, Guns and Money]

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