Posted by: theoptimisticconservative | March 21, 2011

“Responsibility to Protect”: It May Not be Our Call

Bruce McQuain’s excellent post on “Responsibility to Protect,” or R2P, is followed by Omri Ceren’s thoughtful and well researched piece at Commentary’s “contentions” blog. (Frank Gaffney offers a related discussion at Big Peace.)  Omri summarizes the history of R2P as a thematic project of NGOs that seek international action against Israel. His final paragraph poses one direct question, and one that’s implied by the development of the Libya intervention.

The Responsibility to Protect, in other words, is an international norm that has been incubated with eyes on Israel at least since Cast Lead. Now it’s being used as the basis for UN resolutions backed by French warplanes and American Tomahawks. How did that get in there?

How indeed?  Josh Rogin’s summary at Foreign Policy (cited by Bruce McQuain) attributes the use of the R2P justification to “[Samantha] Power, [Gayle] Smith, and [Mike] McFaul … trying to figure out how the administration could implement R2P and what doing so would require of the White House.” Whatever machinations there were at the UN, Rogin thinks senior U.S. policymakers explicitly favored the move, even if they did not instigate it.

That addresses Omri’s direct question. The indirect question arises from President Obama’s handling of the Libya intervention. Obama has been very careful to state no positive (or “offensive”) objective – the kind of objective a coalition can’t be brought to agree on – for the no-fly zone operation. He has also emphasized the multilateral nature of the effort and downplayed U.S. leadership as thoroughly as possible. The no-fly zone may be established most efficiently with the use of U.S. forces, but the adoption of the policy was not achieved through American leadership.

Obama’s abdication of U.S. leadership puts the implications of “Responsibility to Protect” in a new light. The question now is whether U.S. participation is needed for the declaration and enforcement of a no-fly zone on the R2P principle. For a target country the size of Libya, our forces represent a convenience. But even for a nation with extensive territory, it’s not clear that U.S. capabilities are a necessity.  It would have taken France and Britain longer to disable the Libyan air defense system, but they could certainly have done it themselves.

We still hold a veto on the UN Security Council; we could prevent the UN from authorizing a bumper crop of no-fly zones around the globe. We must hope Obama would use the veto to do so – and that regional coalitions would, like Obama and the other Western leaders, regard the imprimatur of the UN as indispensable. But they may not.  France and Britain aren’t the only nations that will come up with reasons to use armed force abroad in the absence of American policy leadership.

The question about using R2P to “protect” Gaza (or other provinces in other disputed areas of the world) may not be whether the U.S. will agree to it and participate in it – Frank Gaffney’s question – but whether we are willing to actively prevent others from undertaking it.

J.E. Dyer blogs at Hot Air’s Green Room and Commentary’s “contentions.”  She writes a weekly column for Patheos.



  1. This is the first I’ve heard about “R2P” – and it’s totally chilling in its wider implications, as you, Frank Gaffney and the others have implied (or stated directly). This is almost a “license to kill!” – if regional (or other) coalitions take it upon themselves to resolve issues militarily! I’m still a bit fuzzy re some of the details, but it’s implications – and the precedent set by our participation (at the last moment, so to speak) in this bombing – posit more questions than provide clear-cut answers re the USA’s short- and long-term objectives.

  2. What government anywhere on the planet is going to fail to respond to armed rebellion within its borders? And if it does, should it necessarily invite attack from without? Should the US War Between the States have been moderated by perhaps the Spanish and British? Nobody seems to have suggested a no-fly zone over Chechnya.

    • Good point, GM – esp. about that “NFZ” over Chechnya!! Right. I’ll bet the Ruskies’d have something to say about THAT! LOL…

  3. A little more perspective on the situation than we get in the US media:

  4. There’s no reason for being surprised that Obama and other transnational progressives would use this or any other crisis to insinuate new norms of international behavior. And hoping for wisdom, or even a modicum of understanding for US interests from Obama smells of desperation–not to mention relying upon a UN imprimatur (!) for future interventions. Conservatives simply need to figure out how to respond to such actions, which we might support on other grounds, but which are being carried out in such a way as to advance inimical principles. We can develop an isolationist argument, repudiating both these “progressive” interventions, but also, by implication, Bush’s, and perhaps relegate American global leadership to the anomalous period of the Cold War; we can support actions such as the one in Libya insofar as it is directed towards the destruction of Kadaffi’s regime and the killing or capture of Kadaffi himself, as a long time enemy of the US (but then we must oppose if it deviates from direct attacks on Kadaffi); or we can see Obama’s actions as an involuntary adoption of Bush’s spread of liberty qua War on Terror policy, and support them in the assumption that “conditions” will require more such actions and ultimately an explicit affirmation of the policy. Perhaps there are other alternatives. I was very sympathetic to Bush’s policy, but it ultimately stalled, and I see no hope of revival; while gesturing towards “stability” seems to me akin to the reflexive twitches of the recently dead. So, I vote for a simpler foreign policy, one which will not be advanced by this administration but might by a future Republican one: support our allies, i.e., those who actually benefit us, cooperate with us and are ready to fight with us, fight and try to destroy our enemies, and generally treat others as they treat us. We would then be generally good guys, but more what we were in Iraq (the strongest tribe) than some kind of honest broker between other warring tribes, much less an enforcer of the latest inventions of the international legal specialists and NGOs.

    • With the exception that “regime change” is not our business unless the particular regime is threatening the US I cannot find much to disagree with here. It is not the business of the US to meddle in the internal arrangements of foreign nations. There are far better ways to spend our money.

      I absolutely agree that we should support our allies. I also agree with your definition of our true allies. There are very few nations that booth share or values, and are prepared to fight alongside us when vital interests are at stake.

      Proper conservatives are not isolationists. However, they insist that our State Dept and Defence budgets are only expended on securing and advancing the real vital interests of the US. It is not our job to spend our money securing the objectives of foreign governments – or protecting foreign regimes from the consequences of their own egregious activities.
      That is the real difference between true conservatives and the neo-cons. True conservatives are sceptical about spending public money at home or abroad. The neo-cons only have a problem with public spending where it is in the US.

      • I’m glad to have some agreement with Paulite, speaking, presumably at least to some extent, in the name of all Paulites. If we have real allies, then sometimes we will have to help them secure their objectives, and it is a vital US interest that we stand by our allies even when we are not directly threatened, because only in that we can we prove ourselves worthy of being allied with. This means we should choose our allies with caution–but since I think there are times when we can define populations, or large parts of populations, oppressed by our enemies, as our allies, a narrowly focused ally/enemy oriented foreign policy might still very well have us out in the world quite a bit.

        • We need to be more economical in spreading our “love”.

          What US interest were we furthering when we started the thrillion dollar was on Iraq? There weren’t any WMDs. Did we invade for humanitarian reasons? Hardly. I have every sympathy for the Khurds and the Marsh shias, but, for heaven sake, Saddam was OUR bad guy in the 80s when he was gassing and otherwise murdering these people.

          • We might have done Iraq more cheaply by toppling the regimes that were supporting the terrorists there from the beginning. I always thought that part of the point of being in Iraq was to have the mullahs of Iran within striking distance on one side and Assad’s Syria on the other. That’s the “stalling” I referred to in my original comment–Iraq shouldn’t have been seen as an end in itself, but to set in motion a process maybe not all that different from what we are seeing now. Only in that way we might have had reliable allies across the region. But if we didn’t do it then, we’re not going to do it now, or ever–so I’m probably in much more agreement with you about the present and future than about the past.

          • But, to answer your question, “what American interest”–taking out enemies, and showing ourselves ready and willing to take out enemies.

            • adam, it was a disaster top to bottom and you don’t go around killing thousands of people just to show other people that you’re a tough guy.

              If we wanted to topple the Iranians, we royally screwed the pooch by invaded Iraq. The Iranians were the main beneficiary of the war, outside of the Kurdish kleptocracy.

              • I don’t agree that it was a disaster–it’s much better to have the present regime there than Saddam Hussein, with his psychotic sons waiting in the wings.

                We didn’t screw the pooch, whatever that means, by invading Iraq–we did so by not toppling the Iranians, which we could have done, or tried, from our perch in Iraq.

                And, yes, you do kill as many people as you need to show how tough you are. It’s called “maintaining your deterrent.” Killing thousands now may prevent you from losing thousands of your own later–or from having to kill millions later. All you can try and do is make sure they are the right people, those who deserve and need killing. That is, choose your enemies well.

          • “What US interest were we furthering when we started the thrillion dollar was on Iraq? There weren’t any WMDs”

            Our interests were clear and unfortunately the Bush administration decided the real rationale for the invasion of Iraq was too complicated to explain in the face of certain opposition from the left and the obvious complicity of the MSM in biasing their reportage.

            No, there may well have been WMD, moved to Syria shortly before we attacked. But in any case, everybody believed there were either WMD or that Saddam was going to resurrect his WMD programs with everything in place to do so when the sanctions were lifted.

            • “………too complicated to explain”!!!!!


              Imagine if Obama gave a similar reason for his intervention in Libya (or for anything else). You and the rest of the foreign-policy socialists would be howling like coyotes.

              “everyone believed that there were WMD……”
              No they didn’t. Our intelligence didn’t believe it. British intelligence didn’t believe it. The UN inspectors didn’t believe it.
              Given the fact that our government and the British government ‘leant’ on our respective spooks to come up with the ‘right’ answers, one can logically presume that Bush and Blair didn’t either.

              • If they didn’t believe it, what did they expect would happen when we got in there and found nothing?

              • They didn’t really care once their cbjective of destroying Iraq as a (conventional) military power was achieved.

                Given that Iraq hadn’t any WMD, and wasn’t fighting the US, it is hard to see what vital US interest was furthered by the attack and invasion of Iraq.

              • You appear not to have bothered to read the linked articles. Had you, you would have understood that the real reasons for the Bush administration’s invasion of Iraq were in fact complicated, in that they were based upon certain analytical assumptions and, thus easily denigrated by those who did not share the operative premises of the Bush administration.

                Which is why the Bush administration went with a ‘reason’ that seemed conveniently advantageous and if true, unarguable.

                Saddam having or secretly pursuing WMD was “the primary rationale put forward to the American public and International community. But it never was the primary reason for the invasion of Iraq.

                Yes, we did go into Iraq hoping to find WMD’s, while knowing that the WMD’s might not be there by the time we invaded and, yes we knew there might not be any WMD’s… But everyone in possession of intel believed Saddam had them; Gore, Kerry, Reid, Hillary, Pelosi, Kennedy, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama are all on record asserting that to be their belief, so while Bush may have been mistaken, he cannot fairly be accused of lying in saying that he believed Saddam [probably] had WMD’s.

                His leaving out the word ‘probably’ was deceptive but unfortunately politics is a game of hard-ball and there were political considerations and national security considerations involved.

                That said, the Administration was less than frank in giving the impression that WMD’s was the primary reason we were invading Iraq. That mistake has led to great difficulties in responding to criticisms of invading Iraq.”

                Why were they less than frank? Well, there’s a reason why politicians frequently over simplify and media outlets go for the ‘soundbite’. Simplistic ‘solutions’ and analysis invariably result in quicker agreement than nuanced, balanced views which require an in-depth understanding.

                In general, people are mentally lazy. So if one side presents a qualified, nuanced argument while the other side simplistically categorizes the others argument as motivated by mendacious self-interest, the public is generally going to side with the simpler assertion.

                News flash! neither US intelligence, British intelligence or Un inspectors determine policy! Politicians do and again, every major democrat politician is on record as emphatically stating the same fears of Saddam pursuit of WMD as Bush and Blair did because they saw the same intelligence reports.

                The UN inspectors, in a highly suspicious manner, reversed course after first arguing that Saddam was maneuvering to reestablish his WMD programs.

                The same is true of the US intelligence communities assessment of Saddam’s capabilities and intentions.

                Additionally, intelligence estimates are just that, estimates based upon probabilities, not certainties. Invariably, intelligence estimates boil down too, “this is our best guess“.

                No one knew, for sure, what Saddam had or was doing in secret, so the thinking was, given his past pursuit of WMD, he probably has something…and can we afford to take the chance?

                When that logic is coupled with the real reason we invaded Iraq; as the primary tactic to intimidate the rogue nations into abandoning their support for terrorism, as part of a greater strategy in the WoT… the Bush administration’s behavior starts to make sense, even if, in hindsight, we can see the factors that doomed it to failure.

  5. Thanks for posting on R2P. I have found it astonishing that the self-annointed liberals have completely avoided what I believe to be the over-riding impetus for UNSC1973, based on what was already happening in Zawiya, Misrata, and probably Berber Zawara in the west, and Adjabiya, and about to happen in Benghazi.

    Am still personally debating with myself about R2P, but it certainly should be the major topic under discussion, followed by whether the American President should act militarily when the UN says so without direct consultation with Congress. The Brits had their debate and vote completed by Monday.

    • my other question today, after Admiral Locklear’s Q&A, is how one ‘takes out’ mortar launchers already embedded inside Misrata with air and/or naval assets.

      • K2K — sorry for the delay in responding to this. I think the admiral misspoke (or, more correctly, was “improperly briefed”), as one doesn’t really speak of taking out mortar launchers with stand-off air and naval assets at all.

        To actually know you’ve succeeded in taking out a mortar launcher, you pretty much have to be in close contact. Infantry could tell a CAS asset that it had successfully taken out a mortar launcher, but without such eyes on, proclaiming success in this regard via BDA in Italy or Germany after fixed-wing TACAIR strikes is not a valid thing to do.

        But I’n guessing you knew that… 🙂

  6. […] resolution against Libya. Omri Ceren’s indispensable discussion is here (I wrote earlier about it here). In brief, the R2P principle, advanced by international activists, posits that there exists a […]

  7. […] the US action is strategically disembodied – like the “responsibility to protect” justification used for the Libya operation in March – in every aspect.  The risk of mission-creep and […]

  8. […] the US action is strategically disembodied – like the “responsibility to protect” justification used for the Libya operation in March – in every aspect.  The risk of mission-creep and […]

  9. […] we might say the most politically blind – of purposes. This thread of thought went along with the appeal made by Power in the UN to the concept of a “responsibility to protect,” or R2P. The R2P idea is that powerful nations […]

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