New York Times
7 November 2011
The decision by the U.N. Security Council and NATO to end military operations in Libya on Oct. 31 concludes what appears to be the most successful foreign humanitarian intervention since the quagmires in Afghanistan and Iraq soured much of the Western public on such undertakings. At first glance, the intervention in Libya looks like a textbook case of how the new U.N. doctrine of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) was supposed to work. The doctrine’s supporters had hoped that it would codify the obligations of outside powers to intervene — through nonmilitary means whenever possible, but with lethal force if necessary — when a tyrannical regime threatens to slaughter its own people.
(…)The White House, 10 Downing Street, and, above all, the Elysée Palace, are now patting themselves on the collective back. But a far more qualified reaction may be in order. For one thing, it’s unclear whether the fall of Qaddafi will usher in a better or democratic government in Libya; so far the revolutions of the Arab Spring have not been promising on that front. For another thing, unlike earlier versions of humanitarian intervention, R2P was about protecting civilians, and emphatically not about regime change. The Security Council resolutions that authorized an R2P-based intervention to protect Benghazi did not authorize outside powers to provide air support for the subsequent rebellion against Qaddafi. And it is almost certain that without that support he would not have been overthrown.
Those skeptics like myself who are wary of this interventionist paradigm must acknowledge that rejecting it might allow dictators like Qaddafi to stay in power. But its proponents must recognize that in the midst of rebellions such as the one in Libya, people cannot be protected without regime change. They have not recognized this, however, and partly as a result the campaign in Libya has done grave, possibly even irreparable, damage to R2P’s prospects of becoming a global norm.
Those who believe that this is just as well, and that the last thing the world needs is for powerful nations to claim once again the right to bombard weaker ones — this time in the name of human rights and international humanitarian law — will be relieved. But supporters of R2P should be mourning, not celebrating. (…)
Similarly hasty self-congratulation about the Libya operation is now obscuring the fact that NATO’s interpretation of R2P in effect puts the old wine of Kosovo-style humanitarian military intervention in a new U.N.-sanctioned bottle. A straight line runs between such unreconstructed liberal interventionists as Samantha Power and Bernard-Henri Lévy, both vocal backers of the Libya campaign, and the Tony Blair who claimed at the time of the war in Kosovo, when he was Britain’s prime minister, that in the 21st century the West should commit itself to fighting wars to support its values rather than its interests. Self-interest is more like it. Blair and his counterparts in Paris and Washington had no trouble ignoring their professed values and turning a blind eye toward Qaddafi’s crimes when it suited them to do so. And then they decided their interests would be best served by backing the Libyan iteration of the Arab Spring. Regime change became the West’s policy, and the civilian-protection mandate of R2P was its cover.
Proponents of the intervention in Libya often respond to such charges with a wink and a nod — as if we could all agree that the main utility of R2P was always to serve as a moral and political warrant for any humanitarian war they deemed necessary, whatever its legality. The fall of Qaddafi was a good thing, right? Another terrible dictator is felled, replaced by a regime committed to democracy; NATO has once more proved its value; and, unlike the U.S.- and British-led invasion of Iraq, the Libyan operation was genuinely multilateral. Win-win across the board.
R2P is a doctrine born of good intentions, but one of its great drawbacks is that it turns war into a form of police work writ large, guided by fables of moral innocence and righteousness. War, even when it is waged for a just cause and with scrupulous respect for international humanitarian law, always involves a descent into barbarism (think of the way Qaddafi died). This is why even when R2P is applied well, it carries moral risks. And when it is distorted, as it was by NATO in Libya, R2P is not a needed reform to the international system, but a threat to its legitimacy.
When R2P supporters advocated the doctrine before the U.N. in the middle of the last decade, they emphasized its nonmilitary aspects and insisted that the use of force would be a rare last resort. Yet in Libya force almost immediately followed the ultimatums issued to Qaddafi; for all intents and purposes, R2P was NATO-ized. As a result, everywhere outside Western Europe and North America, R2P is losing what little ethical credibility it ever commanded.
This should surprise no one. A doctrine of intervention that both claims the moral high ground and clamors its universality but under which the interveners are always from the Global North and the intervened upon always from the Global South is not moral progress; it is geopolitical business as usual.
Last month, while officials in Paris, London, and Washington were congratulating one another for a job well done in Libya, in the U.N. Security Council, China and Russia were vetoing, and Brazil and India were abstaining from, the imposition of far milder, nonmilitary sanctions against Syria. Clearly, no R2P-based, Libya-like interventions will get sanction from the U.N. in the foreseeable future.
One would never know it from all the victory talk in the West, but instead of strengthening R2P as a new global norm, the NATO intervention in Libya may well serve as its high water mark.