Tag Archives: Humanitarian intervention

Failing the people of Syria during Seven Years of Devastation and Dispossession

13 Nov

 

Failing the people of Syria during Seven Years of Devastation and Dispossession

 

[Prefatory Note: What follows is a wide-ranging interview in November 2017 that that concentrates on the failure of the UN and the world to rescue the people of Syria by a timely and effective humanitarian intervention. The interview was conducted by a Turkish journalist, Salva Amor, and is to be published in a magazine, Causcasus International. The text of the interview has been slightly modified.]

 

A missed chance 

 

  1. You previously referred to Syria as “an ideal case for humanitarian intervention” however, rather than becoming a prime example of positive humanitarian intervention it has turned into one of the greatest humanitarian crises with half of the country becoming refugees or internally displaced. 

 

What turned such an Ideal case for humanitarian intervention into one of the worst humanitarian responses we have seen in recent times?

 

Answer: I do not recall this reference to Syria as ‘an ideal case,’ but I must have meant it in a hypothetical sense, that is, as if ‘humanitarian intervention’ was ever called for, it was in Syria, especially at the early stages of the conflict. And yet I am inclined to think that regime-changing intervention was at all stages a mission impossible. We should keep in mind that the record of actual successful instances of what is labeled as ‘humanitarian intervention’ has been dismal, and when successful the motivation was not predominantly humanitarian, but rather a confluence of strategic interests of one sort or another with a humanitarian challenge. In Syria the strategic interests were not sufficiently strong to justify the likely costs, especially in the wake of Iraq and Afghanistan.

 

Sometimes, the intervention is a cover for non-humanitarian goals, as in Afghanistan (2002), Iraq (2003), and Libya (2011) and may be effective in attaining its immediate goals of regime change but is extremely costly from the perspective of humanitarianism if assessed from the perspective of prolonged violence, societal chaos, and human suffering.

And only marginally successful strategically given the resilience of territorial resistance and the pressure for long-term occupation if the original gains of intervention are to be preserved.

 

At other times, the humanitarian rationale is present, as in Syria, but there is no strategic justification of sufficient weight, and what is done by external actors or the UN is insufficient to control the outcome, and often ends up intensifying the scale of suffering endured by the population. In effect, humanitarian intervention rarely achieves a net benefit from the perspective of the population that is being supposedly rescued. Perhaps, Kosovo (1999) is the best recent case where an alleged humanitarian intervention enjoyed enough strategic value to be effective, and yet seems to have left the Kosovar population better off afterwards, although even Kosovo is not a clear case.  

 

 

Failures & implications of inaction

 

  1. The humanitarian failures in Syria and for Syrian refugees in neighboring countries including Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon and Iraq have had far-reaching implications for the EU with millions of refugees choosing to risk their lives in order to enter Europe causing the largest exodus since WWII. 

 

Could the surge of refugees fleeing to Europe have been avoided had a more positive and organized humanitarian intervention taken place?

 

Answer: It is possible that had Syria possessed large oil reserves, the intervention against the Damascus regime would have been robust enough to topple the regime, and create stability before combat conditions prompted massive internal population displacements and gigantic refugee flows, including the European influx. In this sense, Libya with oil, did prompt such an intervention, although it was an easier undertaking, as the Qaddafi regime had much less popular support than did the Assad regime, and was less well equipped militarily and lacked regional allies. In Syria, because of regional and global geopolitical cleavages, the politics of intervention and counter-intervention was far more complicated, and inhibited potential anti-regime interveners from making large commitments. At the early stages of the conflict Turkey and the United States miscalculated the costs and scale of a successful intervention in Syria, supposing that an indirect and low level effort could be effective in achieving regime change, which misunderstood the conditions prevailing in Syria.  

 

 

The best response

 

  1. In your experience, what would have been the ideal humanitarian response to the war in Syria? And who would have been best to implement it? 

 

Answer: As my earlier responses hinted, there is no ideal response, and the current world order system is not reliably capable of handling humanitarian intervention in a situation such as existed in Syria. To have any chance of effectiveness would require entrusting the undertaking to one or more powerful states, but even then the situation that would follow, is highly uncertain. In a post-colonial setting, there is bound to be strong nationalist and territorial resistance to outside intervention and occupation, generally producing serious prolonged chaos. If the country is very small and can be overwhelmed (Granada, Panama) without counter-intervention the undertaking will sometimes work. Iraq serves as a clear example of an intervention that did rid the country of a brutal tyrant, but produced internal violence among competing regions, tribes, and generated extreme sectarian strife between Sunnis and Shiites, as well as a series of ethnic, tribal, and regional battles.

 

In a better governed world, which is far from existing, the UN would have acted robustly and with the support of the regional governments in the Middle East, the geopolitical actors (U.S. and Russia) would have not pursued their strategic agendas, and a politically neutral intervention would have created the conditions for a post-Assad democratic political transition, including imposing accountability for past crimes. Merely mentioning this desirable scenario is enough to reveal its utopian character. Especially in the Middle East, geopolitics of a regional and global scope badly distort all efforts to fashion a humanitarian response to repression and severe violations of human rights. In the background, but not far in the background, is the relevance of oil. The countries that have experienced massive interventions (Iraq, Libya) possessed abundant oil reserves, while those that have little or no oil have either been ignored or endured prolonged bloody conflict, of which Syria is the worst case, having become the scene of competing and offsetting interventions motivated by political and strategic ambitions with only a thin propaganda rationale associated with alleviating a humanitarian crisis, which at best, was a much subordinated goal of the interveners on both sides.

 

 

Lessons for Future

 

4a. How can the world learn from the humanitarian failures and inaction that occurred in Syria for the past 7 years? What opportunities to protect, defend or support the Syrian people have we missed?

 

Answer: In my view, it is a mistake to speak of ‘inaction’ in the Syrian context. There have been massive interventions of all sorts on both sides of the conflict by a variety of actors, but none decisive enough to end the conflict, and none primarily motivated by humanitarian concerns. Of course, here and there, lives could have been saved, especially if the balance of forces within Syria had been better understood at an early stage of the conflict in the West. What intervention achieved in Syria was largely a matter of magnifying the conflict, and attendant suffering. The conflict itself was surrounded by contradictory propaganda claims making the reality difficult to perceive by the public, and therefore there was political resistance to more explicit and possibly more effective regime changing intervention. 

 

Indifference:

 

4b. Is there any correlation between the rise of Islamophobia and the world’s inaction towards Syrian people’s suffering? Has the ongoing drumming of hatred towards the Islamic religion created a generation of indifference towards those of them who are suffering? Or is such wide indifference a natural response to such overwhelming humanitarian crisis?

 

Answer: The indifference in relation to Syria is mainly a matter of public confusion and distrust. Confusion about the nature of the conflict and distrust as to the motives of political actors that have intervened on either side. The spike in Islamophobia is attributable to the interplay of the European refugee crisis and the occurrence of terrorist incidents that are perpetrated by ISIS and its supporters. Of course, the massive refugee flow was prompted by the violence in the Syrian combat zones, which has made Europe most interested in resolving the conflict even if meant allowing a criminal regime to remain in power.

 

I suppose that the indifference noted in your question is more evident in relation to the plight of the Rohingya people in Myanmar that in response to Syria where, as I have been suggesting, the political context dominates the human suffering, and the Islamic identity of the victimized people is secondary. Also, it is worth recalling the global indifference to genocide in Rwanda (1994) that could have prevented,

or at least minimized, by a timely, and relatively small scale intervention. And on occasion, if the strategic context is supportive, the West will intervene on the Islamic side as in Bosnia and Kosovo in the 1990s, and there in opposition to the Christian side.  

 

 

  1. The UN has handed over a large portion of the $4bn of its aid effort in Syria to the Syrian regime or partners who have been approved by Bashar Al Assad. How does the UN justify providing tens of millions of dollars in humanitarian aid to one of the worst governments, that has besieged, starved, bombed and killed hundreds of thousands of its own people? 

 

Answer: I suppose the basic justification for this behavior is that from the viewpoint of the UN the Damascus regime remains the legitimate government of Syria representing the country at the UN. This is of course a legalistic justification, and evades the real humanitarian crisis as well as the crimes of Assad’s regime. So far, because there is a geopolitical standoff, regionally (Iran v. Saudi Arabia) and globally (Russia v. the U.S. and Turkey), the UN has tried to remain aloof from the ambit of political controversy to the extent possible while doing what it can to alleviate human suffering. I am not knowledgeable about whether the UN aid is reaching the civilian population as claimed. The language of your question suggests that there should be some mechanism for disqualifying a government that commits repeated crimes against its own people from being treated by the UN as a normal member state, but this is not likely to happen anytime soon, and it is tricky as the UN System is built around state-centric ideas of world order.

 

 

The right to torture

 

  1. The world was shocked in 2015 when the Caesar files were releasedrevealing human stories behind 28,000 deaths in Syrian prisons, most, if not all were tortured prior to their death.Two years later no action has been taken in regards to detainees and torture in prisons. There has been no action or desire to send observers to Syrian Prisons nor to investigate those who were named in the Caesar files for war crimes.What must a dictator have to do for the international community to respond to his crimes? Comparing Libyan intervention with Syria

 

Answer: I took part recently in a ceremony in Nuremberg Germany that awarded a human rights prize to the photographer, whose identity is kept secret for his safety, responsible for the Caesar Report containing photographic images of Syrian prison torture of some 11,000 prisoners, most of whom are reportedly now dead. There is no question that these images are horrifying, but serious issues have been raised as to the authenticity of this photographic archive. It has been authenticated as genuine by Human Rights Watch, but has also been used by persons closely connected with the U.S. Government to build a case for war crimes prosecutions, particularly against Bashar al Assad. I am not in a position to assess the controversy, yet do not doubt that the Damascus regime has committed many atrocities and are responsible for the great majority of civilian deaths over the course of the last six years in Syria. At the same time the anti-regime forces, which are fragmented, have also committed many war crimes.

 

These issues of criminal accountability cannot be reliably answered from a distance, or merely on the basis of media reports. What is required is a credible international fact finding commission of inquiry with adequate access to whatever evidence and witnesses remain available.

 

 

 

  1. Human rights groups have estimated that no less than half a million people have died in the last 7 years in Syria. Although there are many violent factions in Syria, more than 94% of all deaths have been caused by Syrian Government or Russian strikes. In comparison Libya’s Muammer Gaddafi had killed an 257 people including combatants and injured 949 with less than 3% being women and children when UN security council intervened. On March 17, 2011, the United Nations Security Council adopted Resolution 1973 (2011) authorizing “regional organizations or arrangements…to take all necessary measures…to protect civilians and civilian populated areas under threat of attack” in Libya. The resolution was adopted with ten votes for, none against, and five abstentions. In hindsight, many have now questioned whether that intervention was purely to “protect civilians”. Is the UN Security Council still a reliable body that can be relied upon to protect the civilian? The UN’s Responsibility Not – To Protect the Civilian Population

 

Answer: The Responsibility to Protect (R2P) UN norm is interpreted and practice is governed by the UN Security Council, and hence is completely subordinated to the manipulations of geopolitics. In this regard, the lesser humanitarian hazard in Libya led to a UN regime-changing mission because the Permanent Members opposed to intervention (China, Russia) were persuaded not to cast their veto for what was being proposed, which was a limited humanitarian mission to protect the then entrapped civilian population of Benghazi. In fact, the NATO undertaking expanded the mission far beyond the Security Council mandate from its inception, angering Russia and China that had abstained out of deference to pleas relating to the humanitarian claims put forward by the NATO members of the Security Council. They later justified their opposition to a more pro-active UN role in Syria by reference to this failure of trust, the unwillingness of the intervening states to respect the limits of the mandate.

 

What is important to appreciate is that R2P and other UN undertakings must adhere to the constraints of geopolitics. As disturbing as inaction with respect to Syria, is the UN silence with regard to the abuse of the civilian populations of Gaza and Rakhine (Myanmar). It is only when a geopolitical consensus exists, which is quite rare (e.g. failure with respect to Yemen) that it is possible for the UN to play an important humanitarian role in shaping behavior and protecting civilians.

 

 

  1. Why was The UN’s responsibility to protect (R2P ) invisible in the last 7 years in Syria? What must be done now, in order to implement an R2P operation in Syria to avoid further suffering? In past years vetoes have blocked humanitarian intervention.

 

Answer: Part of my response here has already been given in relation to the prior question. I would only add here that the abolition of the veto would be a crucial step, or even an agreement among permanent members of the Security Council to refrain from casting a veto in humanitarian contexts such as Syria. The problem is that the veto powers are extremely unlikely to give up their right of veto, partly because such states do not voluntarily give up power and partly because humanitarian issues are almost always inseparable from diverse and often antagonist geopolitical interests, and therefore the claims are not perceived as humanitarian. This is certainly the case with regard to Syria. The take away conclusion is that the international system as it now functions is rarely motivated by humanitarian considerations when they come into conflict with the strong political preferences and strategic priorities of principal states, and this is true even when the humanitarian crisis is as severe and prolonged as in Syria.

 The most constructive response, in view of these realities, is to advocate global reform, but this will not happen without a major mobilization of people throughout the world or as a frantic response to some earth-shaking catastrophe.

 

 

  1. I understand that there was a veto by Russia and thus a solution was not passed, however, in such cases, when one of the countries that is involved in the atrocities is allowed to veto, does it not raise the alarm?Surely, this situation in Syria and the human cost provides enough of a precedent for (if not the UN, those who care about preventing further atrocities) a new chapter to be drafted and implemented into the UN. –Do you believe that it is time for the UN to adopt a new chapter into itsCharter that would prevent dictators or countries with vested interest in a war from overpowering UN Security Council votes? Normalizing atrocities at the global level.

 

Answer: Yes, there was much criticism of Russia for blocking action on Syria, but Russia was acting in accord with the constitutional structure of the UN. The U.S. uses its veto in a comparable way to protect Israel and other allies, and equally irresponsibly, from a moral or humanitarian point of view. It should be remembered that the League of Nations fell apart because major states would not participate, including the United States. The idea of the veto was designed to persuade all major states to participate, with the goal of universality of membership, but at the cost of engendering paralysis and irresponsible obstructions to action whenever veto powers disagree sharply. Your questions raise the crucial issue if this was too high a price to pay for the sake of maintaining universality of participation. One consequence of this tradeoff between geopolitics and effectiveness is to weaken public respect for the UN as an agency for the promotion of justice and decency in global affairs.

 

As specified in Article 108 of the UN Charter requires the approval of 2/3rds of the entire membership of the UN as well as all five Permanent Members of the Security Council, which means that it will not happen in the foreseeable future in relation to any politically sensitive issue. When World War II ended there was the hope and illusion that countries that cooperated against fascism would continue to cooperate to maintain the peace. As should have been anticipated, it was a forlorn hope.

 

 

  1. The White House accepts Assad’s continued rule in Syria as a “political reality” while European leaders have also taken a soft approach with French president declaring he no longer saw the removal of Assad as necessary. In your view, how do such civilized countries justify good relations with Assad? ISIS the monster that invites intervention: ISIS Affects the West, Assad does not.

 

Answer: Your comment on ISIS is a way of expressing my view that these issues are dominated by geopolitical calculations. ISIS as horrible as it is has not been nearly as responsible for the quality and quantity of suffering inflicted upon the Syrian people by the Damascus regime.

 

At this point, and given the unavailability of humanitarian intervention, the best Plan B for Syria is to seek a sustainable ceasefire, and this would undoubtedly require making some unpalatable compromises, including the possible retention of Assad as head of state. After all, there are many heads of state with much blood on their hands, and yet their legitimacy as rulers is essentially unchallenged. The way the world is organized makes it unable to impose criminal responsibility on the leaders of sovereign states except in special circumstances of total victory as in World War II, or more recently, in relation to the criminal prosecutions of Saddam Hussein and Milosevic, particular enemies of the West.

 

 

  1. Many Syrian groups have released statements to express their dismay at the international community for only intervening to strike ISIS. The Global Coalition’s planes hover over Deir Al Zour and Raqa to target ISIS (often causing civilian casualties) while in the same sky Assad Planes carrying deadly Barrel Bombs hover over nearby towns unperturbed. A) Is there balance in the international community’s actions in Syria? While Assad only kills or affects the lives of Syrians in Syria, ISIS became a threat to western countries. Terrorist attacks in the west killed and injured civilians in the west.
  2. B) Is there an underlying message that the West will “Fight against ISIS in Syria, because it affects people in our countries, but leave Assad because he has no impact on their own people?”

 

Answer: Yes, this is certainly a perceptive observation. When the issue is fairly large scale and internal, and where Muslims are the victims, any effort to intervene is bound to be feeble, at best, which it was in the early stages of 2011-2013 when Turkey and the U.S. cooperated in supporting Friends of Syria, which was mistakenly thought capable of shifting the balance sufficiently in Syria to produce the collapse of the Damascus regime. When that failed, it became obvious that the costs of an effective intervention were viewed in the West as too high and dangerous. Considering the Iranian and Russian alignments with the Syrian government doomed an anti-Damascus intervention.

 

And as you suggest, the West views ISIS as dangerous enemy, and is prepared to take bigger risks and bear higher costs because Western homeland security is at stake. ISIS is a proclaimed enemy of the West that is perceived as responsible for violent acts, Syria is not, being regarded, at most, as an unattractive regime, partly because in the past, hostile toward Israel. Taking account of these circumstances, the political realist seeks a ceasefire in Syria while going all out to achieve the destruction of ISIS.

 

 

  1. Please kindly note any comments, suggestions, opinions, thoughts you have on the Syrian conflict and in particular on the west’s reaction to it and the UN’s role. Also, on what you feel can and should be done from now on. Thanks so much.

 

Answer: From my earlier responses I am skeptical about what can be done beyond the obvious: give up any hope of securing support for an R2P mandate to protect the Syrian people, and pursue a ceasefire so as to end the suffering. This is not justice, but it may at least spare the Syrian people further trauma and bloodshed.

 

What the Syrian tragedy and ordeal reveals vividly is the inability of the international community, as now organized, to deal with a humanitarian crisis unless a geopolitical consensus is present in a relatively strong form, regionally and globally. Such a consensus is not even enough if the difficulties of intervention are seen as producing heavy casualties for the intervening side and would impose burdens of a prolonged occupation to achieve post-intervention political order and security.

 

Europe would benefit at this time from a Syrian ceasefire and the restoration of political normalcy. It would undoubtedly reduce the pressure on European countries created by the Syrian refugee flow, which has given right wing political parties their greatest strength and largest level of popular support since the end of World War II.

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Moralizing Military Intervention

11 Nov
[Prefatory Note: I am republishing my review essay that appeared in International Dialogue: A Multilateral Journal of World Affairs 6:2016. It discusses two excellent studies of humanitarian intervention, a post-colonial trope allowing the United States and West Europeans to feel morally satisfied while projecting military power to distant lands, often with devastating consequences for the people being protected, and sometimes, even being rescued from tyranny and brutal repression. In some respects, what progressive critics call ‘regime-change’ the champions of such policy like the terminology of ‘humanitarian intervention,’ or even better, ‘Responsibility to Protect’ or R2P. Donald Trump interestingly portrayed Hillary Clinton accurately as a regime-change advocate, and pledged not to make such mistakes if elected. We will wait, see, and hope that at least this time, he means what he says. The Middle East has been the testing ground for this ‘new geopolitics’ but its antecedents can be traced back several centuries as the Klose edited collection of essay clearly demonstrates. Both studies are notable for highlighting the non-humanitarian motivations that accompany such undertakings, which are often hidden from public view, and need to be highlighted to comprehend this latest twist in the conduct of international relations.] 

 

The Emergence of Humanitarian Intervention: Ideas and Practice from the Nineteenth Century to the Present

Fabian Klose (ed). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016. 364pp.

 

The Conceit of Humanitarian Intervention

Rajan Menon. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016. 235pp

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ever since the fall of the Berlin Wall and the subsequent collapse of the Soviet Union there has been an upsurge of international undertakings that have claimed humanitarian justifications for military interventions in foreign societies. A second kind of justification for such interventions all of which are launched by Western countries (especially the United States) was associated in this period with the global “war on terror” initiated during the presidency of George W. Bush in response to the 9/11 attacks of 2001 on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. In other words, this upsurge in interventions draws partly on a normative rationale drawn from religion, morality, and law and partly from a security rationale premised on stretching the law of self-defense to meet the distinctive challenge of transnational mega-terrorism. The central question raised is whether this contemporary practice of intervention has been beneficial from the perspective of either humanitarianism or security.

There are some crucial considerations that bear on the use of force given the hybrid structure of world order as partly state-centric and partly geopolitical. The state-centric part is, by and large, anti-interventionist seeking to safeguard the autonomy of territorial sovereign states based on ideas of juridical equality embedded in the rule of law. The geopolitical part is, by and large, interventionist as a reflection of the international reality that only the more powerful states possess the capabilities and the geopolitical ambition to intervene. As might be expected these two dimensions of world order are often in tension when concrete cases arise. For geopolitical actors that are also states the two ordering principles are reconciled by privileging sovereignty for oneself and maintaining an option to intervene with respect to all other states except those that are themselves geopolitical actors.

One way to resolve this underlying tension is to condition humanitarian intervention on a grant of authority by the UN Security Council (UNSC). However, the UNSC is structured in such a way that only when the dominant members, the permanent five or P-5, are in agreement can an authorizing decision be reached. And even on those rare occasions when such authorization is forthcoming as was the case with the First Gulf War of 1991 or the 2013 NATO intervention against the Qaddafi government in Libya, the UN loses any capacity to supervise what has been authorized because operational control is taken over by the geopolitical actor(s) delegated to use force. In this sense, the tension between statism and geopolitics is not overcome by reliance on the UN even when it is capable of reaching a decision, but merely somewhat disguised. In essence, whenever an intervention occurs, its contours are controlled by geopolitics despite UN authorization and reliance on a humanitarian rationale. Further, the UN is too weak to insist that an intervention be confined to humanitarian ends, and geopolitical actors are not willing to intervene militarily unless they possess strategic and self-interested reasons for doing so.

Against this background it is a pleasure to welcome two excellent books that explore the ins and outs of humanitarian intervention, arriving at the essentially convergent and unsurprising conclusion that such behavior is more a geopolitical than a normative phenomenon. The Klose edited collection is generally analytic and empirical in tone, with several strong historical chapters, while Menon’s book is a tightly argued polemic directed against those liberal internationalists who during the Obama presidency have championed the dawn of a new era of humanitarian intervention resting on the implementation of universally shared values.

The contrary thesis of Menon’s book is conveyed by his title, The Conceit of Humanitarian Intervention. In effect, he is instructing us on the basis of a very scrupulous consideration of doctrine, cases, and results that claims by the West, especially by the United States, to have engaged in a series of “humanitarian interventions” is a snare and delusion, with a shabby record of performance. Menon associates the word ‘conceit’ with its dictionary definition of “a fanciful idea” that embodies an “excessive appreciation of one’s own opinion or worth.” As applied to the controversies about humanitarian intervention, Menon insists that advocates so greatly exaggerate “the worldwide spread of universal norms and their acceptance by the international community” as to make their argument “little more than a conceit” (10). In a rhetorical flourish Menon tells his readers that “[h]umanitarian interventionists are intoxicated by the grandeur and moralism of their transformative program” (178).

Menon develops his case carefully, accurately presenting the arguments with which he disagrees, with his main targets obviously being the liberal internationalists who pushed Barack Obama to intervene in a series of countries in the Middle East with disastrous results. In this regard, it happens to be three influential women—Hilary Clinton, Susan Rice, and Samantha Power—who have been most prominently carrying the torch of humanitarian intervention during the Obama presidency. Menon does not doubt their sincerity, but he is highly critical of their tendency to separate an affirmation of humanitarian goals from any acknowledgement of the relevance of geopolitical motivations and complications.

As he points out, by neglecting the difficulties of achieving the posited humanitarian goals, the weakness of a humanitarian rationale for the use of force is ignored, and disappointing results ensue. Menon points out that sovereign states are deeply reluctant to sacrifice their own citizens for the purpose of promoting positive humanitarian results. Equally discrediting is the startling failures of intervening states to invest sufficiently and effectively in post-intervention reconstruction, thereby leaving in ruins what they were pledged to fix. As the persisting chaos in Iraq and Libya vividly illustrates, the fact that a dictatorial and abusive regime was replaced does not insure that a society will be better off as a result of the intervention. Especially in Iraq, there is every reason to suppose that the war planners in the Pentagon and the State Department would quietly rejoice if a new strong man emerged who proved capable of imposing order in the manner of Saddam Hussein. In this sense, one of the implicit caveats of the Menon critique is “beware of what you wish for.” In effect, he shows that more often than not, the unintended consequences of intervention create new monsters more formidable than those destroyed. Perhaps, this point can be driven home by pointing out that the American intervention in Iraq led to the formation of ISIS, and its later spread to a series of other countries, including Libya.

Menon also questions the normative argument from two main angles. First of all, he believes that disagreements among major states generally prevent any consensus being formed as to the application of humanitarian norms. And further, that many states in the post-colonial global setting are very reluctant to endorse any right of the West to override sovereignty by way of military intervention. In this regard he views the pretensions of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) norm with a suspicious eye. The abstractness and vagueness of the norm allows states to interpret its meaning in very self-serving ways, which ensures that its role in conflict situations will be more a reflection of geopolitics than of normative agreement. In Menon’s words “[h]umanitarian intervention can never become an ethically driven pursuit disentangled from power and interests” (11). This assessment rests on Menon’s underlying embrace of realism as the foundation of political behavior involving international uses of force: “Great powers seldom, if ever, surrender their privileges for the greater good” (159). Supposing here that the greater good is the prevention of mass atrocities by demonic governments, Menon is saying that normative considerations to the extent invoked serve as window dressing, and will not generate meaningful action unless reinforced by an accompanying geopolitical motive of sufficient magnitude.

Although Menon does not make the argument, the refusal of liberal democratic states to act collectively to prevent the Nazi persecution of Jews and others is a dramatic confirmation of his underlying argument about the structure of international political life. His main effort is to discredit the liberal claim that after the fall of the Soviet Union there existed a broad humanitarian movement in international society that generated a strong enough headwind to uphold the contention that atrocities could be prevented and punished through the instrumentalities of humanitarian intervention and R2P. I believe Menon brilliantly explicates the several fallacies of the interventionists, while at the same time keeping the door open for intervention in reaction to atrocities when geopolitical forces are effectively aligned and the likely costs realistically taken into account.

With respect to costs, Menon exhibits further well-reasoned skepticism. He shows that throughout history, those who favored the use of force understated the costs and difficulties of proposed undertakings. In this sense, it is not only that humanitarians are naïve in their enthusiasm but also that the militarists (often the politicians rather than the professional military) view intervention threw rose-tinted glasses. Recent experience that confirms the immense difficulties of turning the military superiority enjoyed by an intervening state or coalition of the willing into the desired political outcome. This realization alone should give rise to a posture of caution and restraint when it comes to embarking on any military intervention.

Menon sustains his narrow critique of humanitarian intervention with lucid analysis and a scholarly mastery of relevant materials. There are a few red lines he refuses to cross. There is not a single mention of Israel/Palestine, and the prolonged plight of the civilian population of Gaza, nor is there any insight given as to what could be done to protect the people of Syria from the horrifying spectacle of atrocity. Although Menon advocates a kind of pragmatism in shaping responses, he does not discuss the complicity of geopolitical actors in crimes against humanity, genocide. As well, there is no reference to the relevance of neoliberal globalization to decisions bearing on whether to intervene or not.

The Klose volume manages a consistently high quality throughout its fifteen chapters, but it is much harder to review. The book lacks the coherence and focus of the Menon effort. If there is a common theme it is this idea of impurity when it comes to military intervention. In an introductory chapter Klose adopts a strong formulation of this view: “if the purity of humanitarian purposes is the sole criterion defining the concept of humanitarian intervention, then it never existed and will never exist. It is an absolute myth that states would risk or have ever risked the lives of their soldiers just to follow the altruistic call of humanity” (13). While Menon devotes his energy to those who are claiming that intervention for humanitarian purposes has become possible and is desirable, the Klose contributors, mainly Europeans, are trying to set forth the mixed motives that color many shades of gray when appraising the main instances of humanitarian intervention throughout modern history dating back to the struggle to stop the international slave trade.

There are two contributions of this historical approach to our understanding of humanitarian intervention. The first is to affirm the degree to which past claims of humanitarian intervention were always covering over geopolitical priorities that alone explained why, for instance, Christians were protected if abused in the declining decades of the Ottoman Empire while the victimization of other minorities was ignored. The second it to deepen our historical awareness in ways that stress continuity with the past rather than the contentions of discontinuity, which Menon tries to refute by a largely ahistorical exposure of the inconsistencies, selectivity, and disappointments associated with the post-Cold War practice in humanitarian intervention/R2P.

What neither book confronts clearly is a core discontinuity bearing on the diminished agency of military force as instruments of intervention. The anti-colonial wars as well as the major instances of post-1945 intervention reveal a pattern of political outcomes in which the weaker territorially based resistance side has mostly prevailed over the stronger foreign intervening side. The Vietnam War should have taught this lesson to American policymakers, but failed to do so, probably due to the militarized bureaucracy that now governs in the United States.

Let me end with words of praise. Both of these books are fine works of scholarship that inform and deepen our understanding of the formidable challenges arising from the commission of atrocities in distant countries. Syria illustrates the particularly toxic mixture of a regime repeatedly committing atrocities and involuntarily offering a haven of sorts for planning mega-terrorist operations against the West. In such a situation it is not even clear whether responding to the acute humanitarian concern posed by the Assad regime will have negative spillover effects on efforts to address the ISIS threat. In such circumstances, an agonizing passivity still seems the least bad option for Washington.

 

Can Humanitarian Intervention ever be Humanitarian?

4 Aug


             Not since the debate about the Kosovo War of 1999 has there been such widespread discussion of humanitarian intervention, including the semantics of coupling ‘humanitarian’ with the word ‘intervention.’ At one extreme of this debate about language stands Gareth Evans, former Foreign Minister of Australia, who is a staunch advocate of displacing the discourse on ‘humanitarian intervention’ by relying on concept of ‘responsibility to protect’ (known as R2P). Evans was, in fact, co-chair of the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty that came up a decade ago with the idea of R2P. This approach to intervention was skillfully marketed it to the international community, including the United Nations. Arguing the conceptual case for R2P, Evans writes, “[b]y changing the focus from the ‘right’ to ‘responsibility,’ and from ‘intervene’ to ‘protect,’ by making clear that there needed to be at much attention paid to prevention as to reaction and non-coercive measures, and by emphasizing that military coercion—which needed to be mandated by the UN Security Council—was an absolute last resort in civilian protection cases.’ [Evans, “Humanitarian intervention is only justified when…” Global Brief, Summer 2011, 60.]

 

Insisting that the coercive actions in the Ivory Coast and Libya show the benefits of this approach, as contrasted with the supposed failures of the 1990s to take action in Rwanda, Bosnia, and Kosovo, Evans feels so vindicated by recent events as to make the following plea: “So let us please lay ‘humanitarian intervention’ language to rest once and for all.” This raises three questions: should we? will we? does it really matter? My answer to the first two is ‘no,’ and to the third, ‘not much.’ My basic problem with the R2P approach is that it downplays the role of geopolitics in the diplomacy of both decisions to intervene and to not intervene. By hiding this fundamental element in the decision process behind a screen of moralizing language talking of R2P rather than humanitarian intervention invites misunderstanding, as well as encourages imperial ambitions. 

 

            At the other semantic extreme is Michael Walzer, who writing in Foreign Affairs, insists that the idea of humanitarianism has become a central feature of world politics in the early 21st century. He starts his article with some hyperbolic language to this effect: “Humanitarianism is probably the most important ‘ism’ in the world today, given the collapse of communism, the discrediting of neoliberalism, and general distrust of large-scale ideologies.” [“On Humanitarianism,” Foreign Affairs 90(No.4): 69-80.] I find such a sentiment to be so exaggerated as to defy reasoned discussion. One wonders has how such an incredible sentence escaped the scrutiny of the eagle-eyed editors of Foreign Affairs. Walzer appears to be suggesting that humanitarianism now eclipses realism and nationalism as an influential global force in the world of ideas and statecraft, which is not only farfetched and wrong, but especially surprising considering that Walzer is without question one of the world’s most respected and influential thinkers on the ethical dimensions of relations among sovereign states. His overall effort in the article is to demonstrate that this humanitarian impulse is a matter of duty for governments, and should not be treated as a species of charity, a potentially valuable distinction that becomes clear when he comes to discuss humanitarian intervention without even mentioning the R2P approach, presumably because it obscures rather than illuminates the underlying issues of choice.

 

            Walzer looks behind the semantics of intervention to appraise the responses to situations where populations are genuinely at risk. He faults the UN Security Council as having a dismal record in the past due to its failures “to rescue those in need of rescuing,” giving Rwanda  and Bosnia as examples. Walzer goes on to conclude that the “UN Security Council rarely acts effectively in crises, not only because of the veto power of its leading members but also because its members do not a strong sense of responsibility for global security, for the survival of minority peoples, for public health and environmental safety, or for general well-being. They pursue their own national interests while the world burns.” [75] This passage sounds to me like an old-fashioned reaffirmation, after all, of realism and nationalism, and is far more descriptively credible than Walzer’s assertion that humanitarianism is the recently emergent dominant ideology.

 

            Coming to specifics, Walzer understandably turns his attention to Libya

as having generated a new debate about humanitarian intervention. He summarily dismisses leftist suspicions about Western recourse to hard power solutions to international conflict situations, but also acknowledges that this NATO intervention does not seem to be succeeding in making good on its initial humanitarian claim. Nevertheless, he gives the intervenors a surprising clean bill of health as far as their intentions are concerned: “Their motives were and are humanitarian, but not sufficiently shaped by considerations of prudence and justice.” [77] Walzer is alive to the complexity of international political life that makes him skeptical about endorsing generalized solutions to such general problems as what to do about a menaced civilian population.  Instead he advocates a situational approach to gross civilian vulnerability. He argues that any state can serve as a humanitarian agent even without necessarily receiving permission from the international community for a use of non-defensive force. In Walzer’s words, “[t]here is no established procedure that will tell us the proper name of the agent.” He gives approval to several non-Western examples of humanitarian intervention: Vietnam in 1978 contra the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, India in 1971 contra Pakistan in what was then East Pakistan and is now Bangladesh, and Tanzania in 1979 contra the bloody tyranny of Idi Amin in Uganda. These uses of force are endorsed as serving humanitarian ends even though they failed to receive any mandate to act from the Security Council and although in each instance, despite rescuing a vulnerable population, the predominant motivation to intervene seemed clearly non-humanitarian in character. In contrast, Walzer pushing to the outer limit his central thesis as to the rise of  humanitarian diplomacy writes “In these circumstances, decisions about intervention and aid will often have to be made unilaterally…The governing principle is, Whoever can, should,” [79] which is the second extraordinary statement made in his article.

 

Such a volitional framework governing interventionary initiatives negates, without even an explanatory comment, the essential effort of contemporary international law to prohibit all international uses of force that are neither instances of self-defense (as defined by the UN Charter in Article 51) nor authorized by the UN Security Council. In this respect, Walzer seems to be endorsing a kind of ethical anarchism as the best available means for achieving global justice in these situations. At this point he veers back to his confidence in the purity of geopolitical motives by contending that ‘what drives’ these uses of force “is not only humanitarian benevolence but also a strong sense of what justice requires.” [79] This is written as if imperial ambitions even if packaged as ‘grand strategy’ should not be a concern. What about the protection of vulnerable states that are victimized by geopolitical maneuvers associated with resources, markets, and congenial ideology? It might be well to recall that it was a notorious tactic of Hitler’s expansionist foreign policy to intervene or threaten to do so for the sake of protecting German minorities being allegedly abused in neighboring countries.

 

            Returning to a comparison of perspectives, Evans sets forth a series of guidelines that he believes will make it more likely that uses of force in these interventionary settings will be respectful of international law while at the same time recognizing the sensitivities in the post-colonial world about giving approval to military encroachments upon sovereign space, which are invariably of a North/South character if acted upon by the United Nations, that is, the North as agent of intervention, the South as the site where force is used. His five criteria are law-oriented, and deferential to the authority vested in the Security Council: (1) seriousness of the risk; (2) purposeful and discriminate use of force to end threat of harm; (3) force as a last resort; (4) proportionality of military means authorized with respect to the humanitarian goals of the mission; (5) the likely benefit of the contemplated use of force for those being protected. Since Evans, unlike Walzer’s willingness to live with unilateralism, seeks a consensual foundation for such uses of force, he insists that the final mandate for an R2P operation must be shaped within the five-part framework set forth and based on a formal Security Council authorization. Walzer argues more opportunistically, geopolitically naively, that states should be empowered to act even without proper authorization if they have the will and means to do so. His examples  of humanitarian interventions by non-Western states (Vietnam, India, Tanzania)were all neighbors of the target state, and at the time contested to varying degrees due to the play of geopolitical forces, not as a reflection of different levels of humanitarian urgency. In this regard, the strongest humanitarian argument was undoubtedly present in support of the Vietnam intervention in Cambodia to stop a massive genocide, but also the most controversial as it contravened the American policy at the time of placating China so as to increase pressure on the Soviet Union.  Acting under the umbrella of R2P is most likely to generate intense controversy when the United States acts with or without European backing (Iraq, Afghanistan, Kosovo, Libya), especially if the humanitarian claim seems marginal or as a cloak hiding strategic and imperial goals. Only in the Libyan debate did R2P figure prominently, and maybe led several of the members of the Security Council, including China and Russia, to abstain rather than to vote against SC Resolution that gave NATO the green light to commence its military campaign.

In this sense, Evans’ claims need to be taken seriously, but not because they represent a step forward, but rather because they weaken the overall effort of the UN and international law to minimize war and military options in international political life.

 

            What makes these discussions serious is their bearing on life and death issues for vulnerable peoples and their supposed benefactors. On the one side, Noam Chomsky is right to worry about ‘military humanism,’ which he depicts as the grand strategy of hegemonic political actors being cleverly disguised as global public works projects. In effect, humanitarianism is the pathetic fig leaf selected to hide the emperor’s nudity. Chomsky points to ‘double standards’ as proof positive that whatever the explanation given for a particular intervention by the United States or NATO, the claimed humanitarian motivation is window dressing, and not the primary consideration. He treats Western silence about decades of brutal Turkish suppression of the Kurdish movement for human rights as an illuminating example of geopolitical blinkering whenever it seems inconvenient to take action on behalf of a victimized minority. In my view, the most extreme instance of double standards involves the failure of the UN System or ‘a coalition of the willing’ to take any action protective of the Palestinian population enduring an oppressive occupation for more than forty-four years,

despite the direct UN and colonialist responsibility for the Palestinian ordeal.  

 

On the other side of this debate among progressives is Mary Kaldor who worries that without the intervention option dreadful atrocities would take place with even greater frequency. She supported intervention to protect the endangered Albanian population of Kosovo, fearing that otherwise the genocidal horrors of Bosnia would likely have been repeated, including even the risk of reenacting the grisly massacre of Srebrenica. At the same time, Kaldor was not indifferent to the risks of great power abuse, and tried, in the manner of Gareth Evan, to condition her endorsement of intervention with a framework of guidelines that if followed would make the restraints of international humanitarian law applicable and minimize the exploitative opportunities of intervening powers. This framework was embodied in the report of the Independent International Commission on Kosovo on which Kaldo was an influential member. That report also took account of the inability of the intervenors to win UN Security Council approval (in this instance, because of the expectation of Russian and Chinese vetoes). The report took the position that in situations of imminent humanitarian catastrophe it would be legitimate to intervene if the capabilities were available to exercise effective proportionate force, although unlawful given the UN Charter prohibition on all non-defensive claims to use force. It is, of course, not generally desirable to create exceptions to restraints that enjoy the status of fundamental rules of international law, but it can seem even more discrediting for the role of law in world affairs to be paralyzed in humanitarian emergencies by rigid rules and procedures that produce inaction, and expose vulnerable peoples to the ultimate abuse of genocide or severe crimes against humanity.

 

There is no right and wrong in such a debate. Both orientations are in touch with relevant realities, and there is no principled way to choose between such contradictory concerns beyond an assessment of risks, costs, and likely effects of intervention or inaction in each instance depending on its overall properties. Judgment here is necessarily operating in a domain of radical uncertainty, that is, nobody knows! This raises the crucial question, what to do when nobody knows? It is this unavoidable responsibility for a decision when the consequences are great and available knowledge is of only limited help that points to the difficulties of the human condition even putting to one side the distorting effects of greed, ambition, civilizational bias, and the maneuvers of geopolitics. The late great French philosophical presence, Jacque Derrida, explored this dilemma in many discourses that related freedom to responsibility, with some collateral damage to Enlightenment confidence in the role of reason in human affairs. For Derrida, making such decisions is an unavoidable ordeal that is embedded in what it means to be human, combining helplessness with urgency.

 

            I would suggest two lines of response. First, there are degrees of uncertainty, making some decisions more prudent and principled, although inevitably with the unclear contours with respect to envisioning outcomes given ‘the fog of war.’ In this regard everything is guesswork when it comes to composing a balance sheet of horrors. Still, it seems plausible to insist that Rwanda in 1994 was a lost opportunity spare many lives taken in a genocidal onslaught, a claim strengthened now and later by the preexisting presence of a UN peacekeeping force in the country, and the informed judgment of both the UN commander on the ground and many observers. General Roméo Dallaire indicated at the start of the crisis that 5,000 additional troops plus a protective mandate to act from the UN could have prevented most of the killings, estimated to be over 800,000. (Dallaire commanded the UN Assistance Mission for Rwanda; see also Linda Malvern, Conspiracy to Murder: The Rwandan Genocide, Verso, 1994.). From the perspective of prudence, the fate of minorities trapped in major states is almost always an unattractive option, although non-military initiatives of support and censure may have positive effects in some instances. It is unattractive because the costs would be high, the target state has major capabilities, the scale of an effective intervention would exceed the political will to protect a threatened minority, and most important, there would be a high risk of starting a general war.

 

The Libyan intervention in 2011 was falsely labeled and the mission authorized was light years away from the operational goals of the NATO operation. In effect, this amounts to a disguised form of an unlawful use of force, but coupled with a dereliction of duty on the part of the Security Council to ensure that the gap between its mandate and the actual operation was closed. Besides, those who are being protected, or more accurately, being helped in a struggle for control of the country, were a shadowy organization thrown together on the spot, lacking in cohesion, and almost from the outset having recourse to violence in a manner that violated the spirit and character of the inspiring Arab Spring popular movements in neighboring Tunisia and Egypt. At the same time, there was a humanitarian challenge, as the dictatorial leader, Col. Muammar Qaddafi, was delivering bloody rants and the civilian population, under siege in Benghazi, was definitely in a situation of imminent risk. Under these circumstances, a carefully delineated protective move under UN auspices could have been justified, but it would have depended on placing NATO troops in situations of potential danger. The kind of air campaign that has been waged by inflating and exceeding the actual UN mandate depicted in Security Council Resolution 1973 has been discrediting for UN peacekeeping and authority. It has been ineffectual in stopping the violence in Libya, and likely responsible for its spread. At the same time, so far the intervention has resulted in not a single NATO casualty (while causing a rather large number of Libyan civilian deaths). Whether the stalemate in the conflict will produce a negotiated compromise remains uncertain, but the shaping and execution of the intervention is suggestive of the inadequacy of either allowing the decisions and policies relating to humanitarian catastrophe to be made by governments on the basis of their own calculus or through reliance on a UN framework that is susceptible to major geopolitical manipulation.

 

There is a preferable, although imperfect, alternative that has been around for several years: the establishment of a UN Emergency Peace Force (UNEPF) capable of being activated through the joint authority of the Secretary-General and a super-majority of two-thirds of the membership of the UN Security Council in reaction to either a humanitarian catastrophe arising from political policies or conflict, or a natural disaster that exceeds the response capabilities of the national government. The UNEPF should ideally be funded through some kind of small global tax imposed on the sale of luxury goods, international travel, currency transactions in financial markets, or some combination. If this proves to be impractical, then voluntary contributions by non-permanent members of the UN Security Council would be acceptable. The whole idea would be, to the extent possible, to break the present links between ‘humanitarian interventions’ and geopolitics. The only means to do this would be through the creation of a maximally independent international agency for such undertakings that would engender confidence in its good faith and through its prudent tactics and effective operations. Unlike such delegated interventions as the Gulf War of 1991, the Kosovo War of 1999, and the Libyan War of 2011, UNEF would rely on tactics that were geared toward minimizing risks for a threatened population and would operate under the strict supervision of the mandating authorities while carrying out an interventionary or relief mission. UNEPF capabilities would be constructed from the ground up, with separate recruitment, training, doctrine, and command structure.

 

            This seems like such a sensible innovation for the benefit of humanity that it may seem puzzling why it has never gained significant political support from UN members, but it should not be. For decades global reformers have been advocating a UN tax (often named a ‘Tobin Tax’ after James Tobin, an Nobel economist who first floated such a proposal) and the kind of UNEPF recommended above (for instance, carefully outlined in a proposal developed by Robert Johansen in collaboration with other scholars, a prominent political scientist who has for years been associated with the Kroc Institute of International Peace Studies at Notre Dame). Such a practical solution to this daunting challenge is not on the table because it would weaken the leverage of geopolitical actors over the resolution of conflict situations. Reverting to the earlier discussion of Walzer, it is precisely because humanitarianism is marginal to the conduct of world politics that makes the UNEPF proposal seem utopian. In relation to Evans, geopolitical forces can accommodate his framework, which is probably well-intended, but provides intervening states with a rationalization for their desired uses of force without significantly interfering with the discretion to intervene and not to intervene. As the Libyan debate and decision confirms, geopolitics remains in control despite recourse to the framing of action by reference to R2P. If we want more principled and effective action in the future, it will require a great deal of pressure from global civil society in collaboration with middle powers, the sort of coalition that led to the surprising establishment of the International Criminal Court in 2002 over the opposition of such international stalwarts as the United States, China, Russia, and India.

 

Qaddafi, Moral Interventionism, Libya, and the Arab Revolutionary Moment

20 Mar

Qaddafi, Moral Interventionism, Libya, and the Arab Revolutionary Moment

Long ago Qaddafi forfeited the domestic legitimacy of his rule, creating the moral and political conditions for an appropriate revolutionary challenge. Recently he has confirmed this assessment by referring to the disaffected portion of his own citizenry as ‘rats and dogs’ or ‘cockroaches,’ employing the bloodthirsty and vengeful language of a demented tyrant. Such a tragically criminal imposition of political abuse on the Libyan experience is a painful reality that exists beyond any reasonable doubt, but does it validate a UN authorized military intervention carried out by a revived partnership of those old colonial partners, France and Britain, and their post-colonial American imperial overseer?

From a personal perspective, my hopes are with the Libyan rebels, despite their reliance on violence and the opaqueness  of their political identity.  As many credible exile Libyan voices attest, it would seem highly likely that a rebel victory would benefit the people of Libya and would be a step in the right direction for the region, especially the Arab world, but does this entail supporting Western-led military intervention even if it is backed by the United Nations? I believe not.

Let us begin with some unknowns and uncertainties. There is no coherent political identity that can be confidently ascribed to the various anti-Qaddafi

forces, loosely referred to as ‘rebels.’ Just who are they, whom do they represent, and what are their political aspirations? It is worth observing that unlike the other regional events of 2011 the Libyan rising did not last long as a popular movement of a spontaneous character, or unfold as a specific reaction to some horrific incident as in Tunisia. It seemed, although there is some ambiguity in the media reports, that the Libyan oppositional movement was armed and reliant on military force almost from the start, and that its political character seems more in the nature of a traditional insurrection against the established order than a popular revolution in the manner of Tahrir Square inspired by democratic values. This violent political reaction to Qaddafi’s regime seems fully justified as an expression of Libyan self-determination, and as suggested deserves encouragement from world public opinion, including support from such soft power instruments as boycott, divestment, and maybe sanctions. By and large, the international community did not resort to interventionary threats and actions in Libya until the domestic tide turned in favor of Tripoli, which means that the intervention was called upon to overcome the apparent growing likelihood that Qaddafi would reestablish order in his favor, and therefore this international intrusion on the conflict represents a coercive effort to restructure a country’s governing process from without.

The main pretext given for the intervention was the vulnerability of Libyan civilians to the wrath of the Qaddafi regime. But there was little evidence that such wrath extends beyond the regime’s expected defense of the established order, although admittedly being here undertaken in a brutal manner, which itself is not unusual in such situation where a government and its leadership is fighting for their survival. How is this Libyan response different in character than the tactics relied upon by the regimes in Yemen and Bahrain, and in the face of far less of a threat to the status quo, and even that taking the form of political resistance, not military action. In Libya the opposition forces relied on heavy weapons, while elsewhere in the region the people were in the streets in massive numbers, and mostly with no weapons, although in a few instances, with very primitive ones (stones, simple guns) that mainly were used in retaliation for regime violence.

It may have been the case that the immediate Libyan governmental response was predictably brutal and militarist, and that the rebel opposition felt that it had no choice. But it should have been clear from the experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan that military intervention against a hated and brutal regime is not the end of the story, and before the ending is reached violence cascades to heights far beyond what would have likely resulted had there been no intervention. In the process heavy casualties are inflicted and massive displacements occur causing immense suffering for the entrapped and innocent population. In effect, overall historical trends vindicate trust in the dynamics of self-determination despite the fact that short-term disillusioning disasters may and do occur from time to time. These trends similarly underscore the inherently problematic character of intervention, even given the purest of motivations, which rarely, if ever, exists in world politics on the side of intervening parties.

But it can be asked, what about Rwanda, Bosnia (especially, the massacre at Srebrenica)? Are not these instances where humanitarian intervention should have been undertaken and was not? And didn’t the NATO War in Kosovo demonstrate that humanitarian intervention does sometimes spare a vulnerable population from the ordeal of genocidal ethnic cleansing? With respect to Rwanda and Bosnia, the threat of genocidal behavior was clearly established, and could likely have been prevented by a relatively small-scale intervention, and should have been undertaken despite the uncertainties. The facts surrounding the alleged genocidal threat in Kosovo remain contested, but there was a plausible basis for taking it seriously given what had happened a few years earlier in Bosnia. But just as the Libyan rebels raise some suspicion by seeking Euro-American military intervention, so did the KLA in Kosovo engage in terrorist provocations that led to violent Serb responses, allegedly setting the stage in 1999 for NATO’s ‘coalition of the willing.’ NATO went ahead in Kosovo without the benefit of a Security Council mandate, as here, for military action ‘by all necessary means.’ But with respect to Libya there is no firm evidence of a genocidal intention on Qaddafi’s, no humanitarian catastrophe in the making, and not even clear indications of the extent of civilian casualties resulting from the fighting. We should be asking why did Russia signal its intention to veto such authorization in relation to Kosovo, but not with respect to Libya. Perhaps, the Russian sense of identification with Serb interests goes a long way to explain its opportunistic pattern of standing in the way on the earlier occasion when interventionary forces gathered a head of steam in the late 1990s, while standing aside in 2011 in deference to the Euro-American juggernaut.

One of the mysteries surrounding UN support for the Libyan intervention is why China and Russia expressed their opposition by abstaining rather than using their veto, why South Africa voted with the majority, and why Germany, India, and Brazil were content to abstain, yet seeming to express reservations sufficient to produce ‘no’ votes, which would have deprived the interventionist side of the nine affirmative votes that they needed to obtain authorization. Often the veto is used promiscuously, as recently by the United States, to shield Israel from condemnation for their settlement policy, but here the veto was not used when it could have served positive purposes, preventing a non-defensive and destructive military action that seems imprudent and almost certain in the future to be regarded as an unfortunate precedent.

The internal American debate on the use of force was more complex than usual, and cut across party lines. Three positions are worth distinguishing: realists, moral interventionists, moral and legal anti-interventionists. The realists, who usually carry the day when controversial military issues arise in foreign policy debates, on this occasion warned against the intervention, saying it was too uncertain in its effects and costs, that the U.S. was already overstretched in its overseas commitments, and that there were few American strategic interests involved. The moral interventionists, who were in control during the Bush II years, triumphantly reemerged in the company of hawkish Democrats such as Hilary Clinton and Joseph Biden, prevailing in the shaping of policy partly thanks to the push from London and Paris, the acquiescence of the Arab neighbors, and the loss of will on the part of Moscow and Beijing. It is hard to find a war that Republicans will not endorse, especially if the enemy can be personalized as anti-American and demonized as Qaddafi has been, and it always helps to have some oil in the ground! The anti-interventionists, who are generally reluctant about reliance on force in foreign policy except for self-defense, and additionally have doubts about the effectiveness of hard power tactics, especially under Western auspices. These opponents of intervention against Qaddafi were outmaneuvered, especially at the United Nations and in the sensationalist media that confused the Qaddafi horror show for no brainer/slam dunk reasoning on the question of intervention, treating it almost exclusively as a question of ‘how,’ rather than ‘whether,’ and once again failing to fulfill their role in a democratic society by giving no attention to the full spectrum of viewpoints, including the anti-intervention position.

Finally, there arises the question of the UN authorization itself by way of Security Council Resolution 1373. The way international law is generally understood, there is no doubt that the Security Council vote, however questionable on moral and political grounds and in relation to the Charter text and values, resolves the legal issue within the UN system. An earlier World Court decision, ironically involving Libya, concluded that even when the UN Security Council contravenes relevant norms of international law, its decisions are binding and authoritative. Here, the Security Council has reached a decision supportive of military intervention that is legal, but in my judgment not legitimate, being neither politically prudent nor morally acceptable. The states that abstained acted irresponsibly, or put differently, did not uphold either the spirit or letter of the Charter. The Charter in Article 2(7) establishes a prohibition on UN authority to intervene in matters ‘essentially within the domestic jurisdiction’ of member states unless there is a genuine issue of international peace and security present.  Here there was not the basis for an exception to non-intervention as even the claim was supposedly motivated solely to protect the civilian population of eastern Libya, and hence was squarely within the domestic jurisdiction of Libya.

Besides, the claim to intervene as stated was patently misleading and disingenuous as the obvious goals, as became manifest from the scale and nature of military action as soon as the operation commenced. The actual goals of the intervention were minimally to protect the armed rebels from being defeated, and possibly destroyed, and maximally, to achieve a regime change resulting in a new governing leadership for Libya that was friendly to the West, including buying fully into its liberal economic geopolitical policy compass. The missile attacks in the vicinity of Tripoli, especially the early missile hits on the Qaddafi compound are unmistakable signatures of this wider intention. As the Gulf War in 1991 demonstrated, once the Security Council authorizes military action of an unspecified character, it gives up any further responsibility for or effort to maintain operational control and accountability.

Using a slightly altered language, the UN Charter embedded a social contract with its membership that privileged the politics of self-determination and was heavily weighted against the politics of intervention. Neither position is absolute, but what seems to have happened with respect to Libya is that intervention was privileged and self-determination cast aside. It is an instance of normatively dubious practice trumping the legal/moral ethos of containing geopolitical discretion in relation to obligatory rules governing the use of force and the duty of non-intervention.  We do not know yet what will happen in Libya, but we already know enough to oppose such a precedent that exhibits so many unfortunate characteristics.  It is time to restore the global social contract between territorial sovereign states and the organized international community, which not only corresponds with the outlawry of aggressive war but also reflects the movement of history in support of the soft power struggles of the non-Western peoples of the world.

If ordinary citizens were allowed to have foreign policy doctrines mine would be this: without high levels of confidence in a proposed course of military action, the UN should never agree to allow states to engage in violent action that kills people. And if this cautionary principle is ignored, governments should expect that their behavior would be widely viewed in the public as a species of international criminality, and the UN is likely to be regarded as more of a creature of politics than law and morality. For these reasons it would have been my preference to have had the abstainers in the Security Council voting against Resolution 1973. It is likely that the coalition of the willing would have gone forward in any event, but at least without the apparent UN seal of approval.