Small Wars Journal published a longer version of my argument about the criteria associated with the R2P doctrine and why the “If Libya Why Not Bahrain” argument is specious.

However, particularly in light of evolving events, I think it’s important to qualify this argument by emphasizing that I’m describing an existing (and limited) set of standards, not necessarily endorsing it as currently constituted. In fact it would surprise me if Operation Odyssey Dawn does not result in some slightly revisited normative understandings regarding R2P, and indeed perhaps it should. (The rest of this is a thinking aloud post, so please take my ruminations in that context.)

Based on what we are seeing now – both decisions by policymakers and reactions to them by various audiences (in particular, the “If Libya Why Not Bahrain” argument remains as salient as ever) – it seems to me that the perceived legitimacy of humanitarian interventions might ultimately be understood as contingent not only on the behavior of the repressive regime in question, but also on the behavior of their adversaries. This may be inconsistent with the doctrine as previously articulated, but that doesn’t change the fact that the argument seems to carry significant weight.

A piece of this argument bears close consideration, in fact. In short, should the “just cause” threshold for evaluating the relative merit of interventions be related solely to the gravity of the atrocities averted? Or should it also be related to the question of whether or not the civil society in question are represented by peaceful, non-violent protesters? Currently “just cause” is understood in the R2P doctrine only as the former. But there seems to be considerable support for the idea that Bahrainis, Yemenis and Syrians have at least as great a claim to international military assistance, precisely because they are protesting peacefully, than the Libyans, who are represented by rebels who very quickly chose a military approach.

Does this make sense? I don’t know the normative answer to this question. In legal terms, the civilians whose lives are being saved are equivalent in both cases – they’re the people who are unarmed and at risk in either scenario. (It’s not a war crime for Qaddafi to target the rebels, only the civilian-populated areas.) On the other hand in practical terms favoring intervention in cases where armed rebels have provoked a particularly bloody crackdown suggests rewarding opposition groups for violence rather than non-violence – even more so if the intervention then expands from civilian protection to actively arming the opposition. (Though according to Josh Rogin we may be drawing the wrong conclusions from recent revelations.) The lesson for protesters in other Middle East countries is probably this: if you want military help from outside, take up arms and provoke a crackdown.

Certainly that strategy worked for the Kosovar Albanians, whose peaceful leadership un Ibrahim Rugova’s Democratic League of Kosovo was sold out at the Dayton Accords, but who had far better success attracting international support once the DLK’s successor, the Kosovo Liberation Army, was able to provoke a crackdown from Belgrade with terror attacks starting in 1996. Critics of the 1999 air war have sometimes pointed out that had the West supported the peaceful pro-democracy movement in the first place, there would have been no need for an intervention in 1999.

On the other hand, if the R2P doctrine were updated with a requirement that the people being saved use only non-violent means in the face of violent repression, I think there are ethical and practical implications. The ethical implication is that it’s somewhat unfair – given that dissidents in a given country cannot count on international forces in every case and therefore are in a situation of self-help. Resolving this dilemma in favor of greater consistency would probably legitimize more interventions rather than fewer, and given that the R2P norm conflicts with another very important norm that saves a lot of lives, it’s not clear that’s a good thing.

All that aside, I wonder if in fact this is the lesson that international norm-makers will draw from the outcome of this debate. And I wonder what readers think about that as a prediction, as well as what you think about it as a normative proposition?

[cross-posted at Lawyers, Guns and Money]

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