R2P... war into righteousness
The decision by the UN Security Council and NATO to end military operations in Libya 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 UN doctrine of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) was supposed to work. The doctrine’s supporters had hoped 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.
Moammar Gadhafi’s threat to unleash a bloodbath in rebel-held Benghazi was just the kind of extreme instance that R2P’s framers had in mind. And the UN-sanctioned NATO intervention did forestall a massacre. Yet it also did much more. Not only were the citizens of Benghazi spared, but subsequent NATO military operations brought down Gaddafi’s 42-year-long dictatorship.
The White House, 10 Downing Street and above all, the Elysee 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 Gadhafi will usher in a better or democratic government in Libya. Unlike earlier versions of humanitarian intervention, R2P was about protecting civilians and emphatically not about regime change. The Security Council resolutions which authorized an R2P-based intervention to protect Benghazi did not authorize outside powers to provide air support for the subsequent rebellion against Gadhafi. Those skeptics like myself who are wary of this interventionist paradigm must acknowledge that rejecting it might allow dictators like Gadhafi 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 as a result the campaign in Libya has done grave damage to R2P’s prospects of becoming a global norm.
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 UN-sanctioned bottle. A straight line runs between such unreconstructed liberal interventionists as Samantha Power and Bernard-Henri Levy, 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 Gadhafi’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.
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, guided by fables of moral innocence and righteousness. War, even when it is waged for a just cause always involves descent into barbarism (think of the way Gaddafi died). This is why even when R2P is applied well, it carries moral risks.
When R2P supporters advocated the doctrine before the UN 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 Gaddafi; for all intents and purposes, R2P was NATO-ised. As a result, everywhere outside Western Europe and North America, R2P is losing what little ethical credibility it ever commanded.
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.
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.
*David Rieff is a New York-based journalist and the author of eight books, including ‘A Bed for the Night: Humanitarianism in Crisis’. This abridged article originally appeared on Khaleej Times online