t is now a commonplace belief that a worldwide diffusion of human rights norms occurred following the Cold War, creating a consensus favoring humanitarian intervention. The cachet acquired by the “Responsibility to Protect” (R2P) is proffered as proof of this proposition.
This is wishful thinking. Armed humanitarian interventions since the aftermath of the Cold War have been selective, poorly executed, strategically naive, morally incoherent and even dangerous. Far from reflecting, let alone having contributed to, a global consensus, they have been divisive. This is so not because the world has just done it wrong at this early stage of R2P awareness; it is so because of flaws in the concept itself.
The widespread support for R2P as evidenced in official speeches and government and UN documents is profoundly misleading. R2P cannot withstand tough tests that could theoretically transform it into a template for future action. The reason is that when wars in support of (supposedly) transcendent ideals entail significant costs and risks, the major democratic powers—above all the United States—whose involvement is essential will pull back, not least because their citizens are far less enamored of such odysseys than are the high priests of humanitarian intervention. The latter see altruistic sacrifice undertaken by states in the name of their societies on behalf of others who are not their own citizens as moral, but they are dismissive of the notion that protecting and pursuing sovereign self-interest can ever be virtuous or moral as well. The assumption that disinterestedness is what qualifies action as moral is a form of ethical illiteracy. R2P is fundamentally flawed not because it can’t be implemented; it can’t be implemented because it is fundamentally flawed.
y the latter half of the 1990s, an impassioned debate arose on how the world could best respond to mass atrocities resulting from governments’ cruelties or incapacities. By then, several bloody post-Cold War conflagrations had occurred, and the response was, insofar as proponents of humanitarian intervention were concerned, dismaying. NATO’s three-week bombardment of Bosnian Serb redoubts brought Slobodan Milosevic to the bargaining table, enabling the 1995 Dayton Accords to freeze Bosnia’s civil war. But what emerged was a post-conflict polity that granted the Serbs much of their territorial gains and consisted of separate ethnic enclaves. Moreover, it took three years of ethnic cleansing, mass rape, concentration camps and the shelling of towns to get to Dayton. Bosnian Serb troops exposed the fecklessness of NATO and the United Nations as they assaulted or captured the “safe areas” that the unfortunately named UN Protection Force (UNPROFOR) had vowed to defend. Some 100,000 people were slaughtered in Bosnia. Prognostications of a burgeoning planetary concord on human rights sounded surreal, not least because the Bosnian war followed an even bigger disaster in Rwanda.
In 1994, Hutu nationalists, many massed in marauding, machete-wielding gangs called the Interahamwe, butchered some 800,000 people, the overwhelming majority ethnic Tutsi. Though the killers would likely have scattered at the sight of a robust military force sent from without, the cavalry never came, the supposed post-Cold War salience of universal human rights notwithstanding.1 Indeed, once Belgium summoned home its soldiers serving in the UN peacekeeping contingent (UNAMIR) after ten were killed, other countries did the same. Belgium’s government fretted that it would be shamed were others to fill the void. It needn’t have worried: No state stepped forward, and the Clinton Administration, memories of “Blackhawk Down” Mogadishu still fresh, opposed UNAMIR’s expansion even though it contained no American soldiers. Thus a minimal force of 2,500 in August 1993 fell to a paltry 250 in April 1994. The genocide was followed by claims that nothing could have been done, despite scant evidence that any effort was made to explore doing what was later blithely declared undoable.
These outcomes would not surprise anyone who understands that states seldom take military action in support of abstract principles except when important interests are also at issue, the risks small, and the cost tolerable. These were scarcely the first times governments stood by despite incontrovertible evidence of ongoing mass murder: Consider the Holocaust or the Armenian genocide. States have even condemned interventions, diplomatic or military, that stopped massacres: Witness the American and Chinese opposition to the Indian army’s march into East Pakistan in 1971 and to Vietnam’s 1978 invasion of Cambodia, which toppled the Khmer Rouge. Strategic calculations, as usual, trumped human rights, even, in the latter episode, during the bleeding-heart presidency of Jimmy Carter. The Carter Administration, with Chinese support, persisted in its macabre policy by enabling the continued occupation by Pol Pot’s “Democratic Kampuchea” of Cambodia’s General Assembly seat. The Administration of Ronald Reagan, Carter’s successor, opposed investigations into the Khmer Rouge’s crimes, while the Ford Administration favored the movement’s inclusion in any Cambodian political settlement.
Given this background, NATO’s belated intervention in the Bosnian war galvanized believers in humanitarian intervention. It seemed to vindicate their conviction that, pace realism, states are moved by altruism and ideals as well as by interests. The Bosnian intervention then shaped American conduct in the Kosovo conflict. By 1997, Serb forces were battling the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), which, thanks in part to NATO’s intervention in Bosnia, had sidelined Ibrahim Rugova, the proponent of non-violent resistance. The KLA saw armed resistance with a twist as the path to Kosovo’s independence. The twist was this: KLA operations, which were not limited to military targets, aimed to provoke the Serbs to excess, the better to induce external humanitarian intervention. The calculation proved sound. In 1999, NATO airstrikes forced Serbia’s capitulation, paving the way for Kosovo to become a protectorate of the United Nations and European Union and, eventually in 2008, independent.
The Kosovo war, though lauded by humanitarian interventionists, was not without its problems. Realizing that Russia and China would veto Security Council resolutions favoring intervention, NATO acted independently, eliciting accusations that the campaign was illegal and might set a precedent for unilateral interventions and end-runs around the UN. Was the world’s most powerful alliance, led by the world’s most powerful state, now in the business of hijacking human rights to justify wars of self-interest? Supporters of the Kosovo war answered that the UN should not be the sole or necessarily the essential forum for authorizing action against mass killings because that would allow a single permanent member of the Security Council to block a humanitarian intervention. They also parsed the difference between legality and legitimacy, pushing for a new trend in customary law that would eventually align statutory international law with current, presumably more advanced, conceptions of international morality.
This was the context in which then-UN Secretary General Kofi Annan called for an alternative between inaction (Rwanda) and freelancing outside UN auspices (Kosovo). The Canadian government responded by sponsoring the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS), a group of global notables convened under the chairmanship of the former Australian Foreign Minister Gareth Evans and the veteran Algerian diplomat Mohammed Sahnoun. The Commission’s 2001 report produced the elaborate doctrine known as “The Responsibility to Protect”, which has since sired a cottage industry of conferences, books and articles, research centers and much controversy besides.
R2P won wide acceptance in a short time, showing once again how good intentions can trump realistic concerns related to outcomes. R2P was endorsed in the General Assembly’s “Outcome Document” adopted at the UN’s sixtieth anniversary in 2005 (the “World Summit”) and reaffirmed by the Assembly in 2009. Eleven Security Council resolutions have since invoked it in such places as Darfur, Southern Sudan, the Ivory Coast, Liberia, Libya, Syria and Mali. And R2P supporters from the start portrayed NATO’s 2011 UN-sanctioned war in Libya as an exemplary instance of its application, providing yet another example of feel-good intentions outweighing consideration of consequences to be suffered by others.
R2P attempts to reconcile the perspectives of two different constituencies. The first comprises states and organizations that aver that human beings have certain inalienable rights, above all not to be killed or harmed without just cause, and that the “international community” has an obligation to protect them when these rights are violated. The second consists of states that see sovereignty as fundamental both to international law and to international order. They fear that norms and formulas that facilitate armed intervention within countries will only produce more war and instability.
R2P’s originators anticipated that any prescription perceived as proposing lax criteria for the use of force would be dead on arrival, so the ICISS report and follow-on publications of its ilk have bowed before the shrine of sovereignty. They affirm that the obligation to protect people rests in the first instance with the governments that have jurisdiction over them, but they add that when a state cannot or will not protect human rights, the responsibility shifts to the international community, which means, ideally, the UN girded with Security Council authorization, or in a pinch regional organizations if they promise subsequently to seek UNSCR approval. R2P proponents take pains to explain that the concept is not a pretext for military intervention. Force, Gareth Evans tirelessly reiterates, should be used only during human rights emergencies and only following the failure of diplomacy, mediation, naming and shaming, and sanctions. Even then, he stresses, feasibility, risks, proportionality and the prospects for success must be weighed. (There is more than a dollop of just war theory in R2P; Augustine and Aquinas would be proud.) R2P’s expositors also recommend various preventive measures: early-warning mechanisms, pre-crisis mediation, peacekeeping, economic assistance and post-conflict reconstruction.2
Yet the reassurances that force would be a rare, last-ditch response have not placated critics, for several reasons. R2P’s pre-intervention prescriptions merely repeat existing remedies and add nothing to diplomacy’s toolkit. What’s new is the casuistry of reframing and diminishing sovereignty in order to legitimize altruistic armed intervention in defense of the abstract rights that most political communities agree upon in theory. Given R2P’s emphasis on feasibility and the chances for success, weak states are its most likely proving grounds; powerful ones need not fear, no matter the magnitude of their misdeeds. Because idealism and power are inextricably intertwined, with the latter frequently corrupting the former, R2P provides powerful states one script for playing the Good Samaritan when intervention promotes their interests, and another for eschewing or opposing aid when it doesn’t.
R2P’s defenders see this indictment as reflecting hyperbole or misunderstanding, or as the artifice of dictators who declaim about sovereignty and legality but in truth seek to avoid accountability. Yes, dictators have every reason to avoid accountability, but it doesn’t really matter which side is right. What matters is that in a world of diverse polities and cultures, such objections and anxieties have sufficient appeal to prevent the doctrine from acquiring the universal pragmatic applicability its supporters seek. Many states have signed on to R2P, but it does not follow that they will stand behind its sovereignty-eroding features when it is proposed as a plan for military action.
2P is an epiphenomenon in that it reflects a larger challenge to Westphalian/Weberian conceptions of sovereignty by liberal internationalists who want to tie state sovereignty to legitimacy, which in turn is made dependent on how governments treat their citizens. Sovereignty in this view is a means to defend people and to improve their lives, not a license for leaders to do what they wish for reasons of state. This perspective now permeates the discourse of international lawyers, philosophers, political scientists, ethicists, activists and journalists who believe that liberal democratic norms are benignly rearranging the relationship between the state and the citizen, constraining the former and empowering the latter.
This worldview emanates from a distinctive variant of liberalism that the Norwegian political scientist George Sørensen calls the “liberalism of imposition” (as opposed to “the liberalism of restraint”).3 Its adherents reject the realist account of world politics, seeing it as—among other things—statist, preoccupied with competition and conflict, dismissive of the multiple manifestations of international cooperation, and uncommitted to human rights and justice because of its singular focus on state security interests.4 Revolutionary liberals, as I call them, are by contrast in the business of studying and fostering cooperation—among states, with international organizations and non-governmental entities playing a central role. Part of their agenda of collective action for the common good involves advancing human rights and justice. This can be done in many ways; humanitarian intervention is just one of them. Revolutionary liberals see the United States as having a special, even unique, role in enabling this and other forms of collective action because of the values America embodies and the still unrivalled power it wields.
Unsurprisingly, revolutionary liberals and neoconservatives have often been of like mind on humanitarian intervention, nation-building and democracy promotion. Both are historicist, even teleological, in temperament. Both share a near-providential notion of America’s mission. Both are drawn to schemes of social engineering: the redesigning of other countries and even the international order itself. In short, they have more in common than they care to admit with the millenarian and utopian ideologies (radical Islamism, Marxism and fascism) that they abhor as illiberal. Prominent personalities from both camps demanded intervention in Libya (and many also supported the Iraq War), applauded when it occurred, and have criticized the Obama Administration for not arming the anti-Assad insurgents in Syria and for its unwillingness to contemplate even bolder moves.5
However adept it is at generating applause lines from the good-heartedly unreflective,revolutionary liberalism’s paradigm is problematic in several respects. Take the idea that the Soviet Union’s collapse, democracy’s growing appeal and globalization’s myriad effects have together yielded benign new norms with a universal ambit. This claim amounts to a solipsism. It also assumes that the connectivity created by the worldwide flows of commerce and information will eventually enable a global convergence in normative values. This is wrongheaded, and one need not have read Johann Gottfried Herder or Isaiah Berlin to see why. China, Brazil, India, Indonesia, South Africa and Russia—to name but a few major countries—are all enmeshed in myriad international transactions, but they reject the proposition that sovereignty ought to be redefined so that states become legitimate targets of military intervention (or even other forms of coercion) when they contravene what certain states have certified, for themselves at least, as transcendent norms.
As a case in point, Brazil’s 2011 proposal for “the responsibility while protecting” does not, as some believe, seek simply to limit the damage done to noncombatants during armed interventions. Its more important goals, in the wake of the Libya war, are to better control missions authorized for protecting civilians so that they do not evolve into ones of regime change, and to restrict further the conditions under which force can be used. Likewise, the decisions of India and Brazil to support a General Assembly resolution condemning Bashar al-Assad’s government should not obscure their reservations about R2P.
States have long favored the principle of human rights, so long as it is restricted to words and documents. It is also true that the idea that sovereignty involves duties as well as rights has gained wide support, and not just in the West. But when it comes to common criteria for permitting military action to save lives, the consensus invariably breaks down on both theoretical and practical grounds. Brazil and India abstained in the Security Council on the no-fly zone resolution aimed at Libya (as did Germany). That decision reflected a wider suspicion that humanitarian intervention, no matter its paeans to justice, will be applied inconsistently, and inevitably by the strong against the weak. This underscores the ultimate problem facing humanitarian intervention. Countries differ on too many dimensions (power and wealth, historical experience, culture and religion, political ideology and national identity) and are too numerous to allow a common standard for authorizing military coercion in support of human rights. As was apparent in the General Assembly debates on R2P at the “World Summit”, what is agreed upon will be general, qualified, non-binding and susceptible to self-interested interpretation. That is because many weaker states cannot get good answers as to who exactly gets to decide whether and when a state has failed to meet its responsibilities, and how the decision would be taken. What would prevent the definition of “responsibility” from expanding and eroding sovereignty? How would people in “rescued” countries hold accountable a UN that, via R2P, acquires power over their lives? There simply are no good answers to these questions, and there cannot be.
As a consequence of these concerns, the “World Summit” Outcome Document put R2P in a tighter harness. The Security Council’s sign-off was made a prerequisite for its implementation. The international community was required only to “encourage and advise” states to discharge their responsibility to protect. There was no explicit reference to enforcement by military means. Many R2P proponents were disappointed by this lowest-common-denominator declaration, but diluted formulations were the only ones Russia, China and varoius other countries were prepared to accept. Adding in the requirement for UNSCR approval means that their vetoes can prevent R2P-backed campaigns against friendly states and, more important, take the North Caucasus, Tibet and Xinjiang off the R2P map altogether. The same goes for sensitive zones in India, Brazil, Thailand, Burma, Nigeria, Indonesia and a dozen other states. So much for the displacement of realpolitik by increasingly influential, universal human rights norms.
he world has not obliged revolutionary liberals. Raison d’état is resilient: Practical interests shape what states do, not abstract ideals. The United States and its democratic allies are not exceptions to this rule. When it comes to R2P, they, just as China and Russia have, will block punitive measures against friendly governments. Imagine that the so-called Arab Spring makes a delayed appearance in Saudi Arabia. Would the Saudis ever face a Security Council resolution with “R2P” in it? Would the United States, Britain or France back an R2P resolution occasioned by Israel’s use of force in the West Bank or Gaza? No and no.
Those who doubt this might ponder recent events in Bahrain, where a Sunni-run state lords over its Shi‘a majority. The Obama Administration deemed Qaddafi’s violence against the Libyan opposition R2P-worthy but has been unmoved by the Bahraini regime’s repression of unarmed protestors. Nor is Washington’s stance likely to change so long as the U.S. Fifth Fleet is headquartered in Bahrain. Saudi Arabia played a decisive role in mobilizing Arab support for UNSCR 1973, which authorized the intervention against Qaddafi; but it sent troops into Bahrain to crush the Shi‘a rebellion three days before NATO’s intervention in Libya. Qatar, too, mustered Arab League support for the move against Qaddafi and provided combat aircraft to supplement NATO’s Libya intervention, but its troops joined the Saudi gendarmes’ march into Manama. What mattered for the Gulf monarchies was preventing the rise of a Shi‘a-dominated state in Bahrain aligned with Iran. Self-determination and liberty could wait—indefinitely. Egyptian security forces killed 840 unarmed civilians and injured some 6,000 during the uprising against Mubarak; no major government invoked R2P.Had Mubarak survived and unleashed his army in full, would he have shared Qaddafi’s R2P-tinged fate? Not likely. Strong horses don’t attract R2P attention; only weak or vulnerable ones do.
Powerful democracies have long been willing to countenance the killing and expulsions of people and to arm governments that commit such acts. Consider some examples. Turkey’s war against the PKK has killed thousands of civilians since 1984 and displaced another 386,000. In 1988–89, Saddam Hussein gassed and deported thousands of Kurds, killing as many as 100,000 of them, and systematically razed their towns and villages. But Washington turned a blind eye because the Iraqi dictator was then providing a useful service by fighting Khomeini’s Iran.
Consider, too, that between Indonesia’s annexation of East Timor in 1975 and the 1999 UN-sanctioned, Australian-led intervention, 18,600 East Timorese civilians were killed, and another 102,800 died from war-related hunger and disease, with the vast majority of the fatalities occurring before 1999. Australia was rightly complimented for leading the multilateral force that helped bring stability, and eventually independence, to East Timor. But the Australian government, its own documents have since revealed, knew that Indonesia was preparing to conquer East Timor in 1975, may have provided tacit approval, and certainly was willing to arm Suharto’s government in the years preceding the annexation.Not only was Australia the only major Western democracy to officially recognize the annexation; Gareth Evans, then its Foreign Minister, signed a deal in 1989 with his Indonesian counterpart, Ali Alatas, giving Australian energy companies access to the seabed off East Timor. As for the United States, it armed the Indonesian army for years, even though between 500,000 and one million people perished following the 1965 coup that brought Suharto to power. It is now clear that Indonesia’s conquest of East Timor occurred with the Ford Administration’s foreknowledge—and acquiescence. American arms sales to Indonesia rose substantially after its occupation of East Timor. Britain’s dealings with Suharto followed a similar pattern.
The point here is not to condemn particular states for their selective moral outrages or for putting interests before ethics. This is what states of all stripes tend to do. It’s not that they never act in defense of principles or altruistically; it’s that they don’t do so when important interests point another way, or when the costs and hazards of defending them are deemed prohibitive. R2P boosters and revolutionary liberals will reply that the inability to defend basic values everywhere does not mean they can’t be defended when possible. Examples of supposedly successful action (Bosnia, Kosovo, East Timor and Libya) are trotted out, perhaps supplemented by Emerson’s quip about consistency’s allure for “little minds.” But given the realities of power, what this riposte concedes is that if a weak and ally-bereft state kills its citizens, it risks falling into the R2P file and facing armed intervention. If not, then not—which brings us to the problem of moral hazard inherent in R2P.
he prospect of an external humanitarian intervention, as noted earlier, led the KLA to adopt tactics that bordered on terrorism, and Serbia in turn to adopt tactics that resembled migratory genocide. In Libya, once the UN-sanctioned machinery of intervention began to move, anti-Qaddafi insurgents had no reason to compromise and Qaddafi had no motivation to hold back. R2P presents a theoretical continuum of measures with armed intervention at one end, but engaged antagonists know that the various intermediate steps can easily and rapidly be skipped, the continuum collapsed, and the concept applied expansively. That encourages opposition forces to magnify violence to attract and suborn outside help, and it encourages embattled regimes to accelerate efforts at repression before external intervention can be agreed upon and implemented. In short, the prospect of R2P interventions can easily make bad situations worse.
Consider Syria in this light. The Assad government has certainly slaughtered enough of its own citizens to attract R2P attention. But no major power has proposed armed intervention or even arming the insurgents in a dramatic or open way. Why? Because, unlike Qaddafi, Assad has the equipment to make the establishment of a no-fly zone, let alone use of ground troops, a very hazardous venture. Syria also has reliable supporters and arms suppliers in Russia and Iran, and Beijing has joined Moscow in scuttling successive Security Council resolutions aimed at the Assad regime. Russia and China had not forgotten that in Libya what began as an R2P intervention to protect civilians turned quickly into one aimed at regime change. It’s impossible to prove, being a counterfactual, but had an R2P intervention in Syria ever seemed possible to the combatants, it might well have made the carnage worse by quickening the tempo of killing.
In states’ calculations about intervention it is not the magnitude of the atrocities that matters. Four other considerations count for more. The first is the likely ease of the operation, itself a function of the perpetrator’s power. Seen thus, using force against, say, China or Russia becomes unimaginable even if they were to massacre many thousands of civilians, as Russia did in Chechnya in the 1990s. The second is whether powerful countries’ important interests are at issue. In Rwanda, they were not. A third is whether the offender has allies willing to block UN resolutions proposing intervention, or to dilute those calling for sanctions or peacekeeping forces. Thanks to backing from China and Russia, the Sudanese government could cynically shape the size, composition and mandate of the Darfur peacekeeping force. Fourth, would-be interveners will desist when a conflict’s complexity and scale of violence produce a sense of futility or fears of being sucked into a swamp. A case in point is the Congo. Since 1994, between one million and 5.4 million people (a debate rages on the precise figure) have perished there from the direct or indirect effects of war, making the loss of life in Libya, and even Syria, pale in comparison. The UN’s peacekeeping efforts have had the effect of a gnat biting an elephant, and indeed have in instances made matters worse.
hose who start wars are often confident that they know how they will end. They are just as often proved wrong. Idealistic humanitarian interveners, a sub-species of such hubristic planners, congratulate themselves on their high-mindedness, which leads most of them to assume that if no self-interested motives attach to their intentions, then no self-interested consequences can emerge from them. Of course this is absurd.
One result of NATO’s (eventual) decision to strike Bosnian Serb forces in 1995, very popular among the soon-to-be-hatched R2P brood, was to alter the political balance within the Kosovar Albanian opposition. The Dayton deal skirted Kosovo, confirming most Kosovars’ belief that the world couldn’t care less about their plight. The new context helped the KLA but, as already noted, shaped the ferocity of its tactics. In response, Serb forces mounted a major counterinsurgency campaign. Indeed, the multiplication of Western calls to “do something” had the perverse effect of inducing Slobodan Milosevic to ramp up the killings and expulsions. Once NATO started bombing, Milosevic moved even faster and more ruthlessly to quash the KLA, but NATO still limited itself to airpower and restricted pilots to safe altitudes. The result? In less than three months after NATO began bombing, Serbian troops killed some 10,000 people in Kosovo and drove another 1.4 million from their homes. The shallowness of the alliance’s commitment to humanitarian principles was revealed when it chose to conduct a campaign that would produce minimal, ideally zero, casualties for its own soldiers, no matter the horrendous consequences for the people it had intervened to protect.
NATO’s defenders say that it did not do the killing and expelling, that Milosevic was responsible and that he would have done what he did anyway. Yes, the Serbian leadership unquestionably bears responsibility; yes, atrocities occurred before NATO acted; but there can be no doubt that the scale and duration of Serbian atrocities owed much to NATO’s intervention. The self-exculpatory claim that what happened would have happened is unpersuasive.
It is also worth noting in passing what the Kosovar victory enabled—a set of concerns almost universally ignored in Western accounts of the war. NATO defended the intervention as a response to killings and ethnic cleansing, but after the war Albanians killed many Serb civilians and forced thousands of Serbs and Roma from their homes even as NATO troops (organized as KFOR) were moving in to secure Kosovo. The KLA maintained detention centers in Albania where several hundreds of Serbs and other minorities, plus Albanians suspected of complicity with the Serb authorities, were held. Some were tortured, others killed—in some cases after their organs were removed for sale by Albanian criminal networks.6 High-ranking KLA officials participated in some of these activities. Before the war, in those parts of Kosovo not controlled by Serb forces, criminal clans, again involving KLA leaders, seized industries, natural resources and property, foreshadowing the massive corruption and criminality that mark Kosovo today. None of this ever excited much passion in Brussels or Washington; nor were European governments welcoming toward refugees fleeing Kosovo. Their focus was on Serb atrocities. The KLA, which had gained in stature partly because the United States and Europe embraced it as a war partner and as the legitimate representative of Kosovar resistance, got a pass. In humanitarian intervention’s Manichean world of artificial passion plays, there are no shades of gray. Unintended consequences are either ignored or blamed on others.
Libya is the most recent instance of unintended consequences flowing from R2P adventures. The post-bellum account of Libya by R2P enthusiasts obscures some unpleasant facts about the gap between ideals and interests. While no sane person mourns the end of Qaddafi’s vicious regime, the portrayal of his ouster as a victory for human rights gives off more than a whiff of hypocrisy. European and American leaders well understood the monstrous cruelties that marked his long rule. Yet once he surrendered the two Libyans suspected of involvement in the Lockerbie bombing (April 1999), abandoned his WMD programs (2003) and transmogrified from tyrant to ally against terrorism (in British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s words), the plot changed. Crippling sanctions on Libya were lifted in exchange for good conduct, and the same European countries that later spearheaded the intervention against Qaddafi were eager to receive him, to invest in Libya and even to sell him arms worth substantial sums. (Did they imagine that the weapons would be used for Libya’s self-defense?) Likewise, MI6 and the CIA worked with Libyan intelligence, and Britain and the United States “rendered” into Qaddafi’s hands members of the Libyan Armed Islamic Fighting Group. (Then there was the embarrassing courtship of Qaddafi by the London School of Economics; the foolish pronouncements about the progressive potential of his regime and the reformist bent of his son, Saif al-Islam, by leading British academics, including Anthony Giddens and David Held; and their American counterparts’ trysts and transactions with the Jamahiriya.) This sordid past has been forgotten, or the subject is changed, or rationalizations offered, whenever it comes up.
At the same time, the misdeeds of the Libyan insurgents—the bombardment of loyalist towns, the brutal slaying of Qaddafi and his aides, the blatantly racist persecution of African immigrants and guest workers, the execution of government troops and the widespread revenge killings—have elicited little comment from Western leaders, let alone condemnation. The gruesome murder of Qaddafi even occasioned a tasteless wisecrack from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
The stated rationale for the intervention was that Qaddafi, having launched a successful counteroffensive against rebellious towns, had ordered his forces to storm Benghazi and, presumably, murder its residents. That eastern city, Libya’s second largest, had first raised the banner of rebellion, inspiring revolts elsewhere. Fears mounted that a bloodbath was looming, especially after Qaddafi’s bellicose March 17 speech directed at Benghazi. One Obama Administration official, Dennis Ross, reportedly warned, without offering any basis for his over-the-top calculation, that 100,000 people would be killed in Benghazi, which has a population of one million.
Moreover, between February 18, when the uprising began, and the March 17 no-fly zone resolution, there was scant evidence of determined efforts to pursue the non-military steps proposed by R2P. At an early stage in the uprising, key Western states were already calling for Qaddafi to relinquish power. Then UN sanctions were imposed, and the no-fly zone soon followed, clearing the way for bombings and missile strikes and massive arms shipments to the insurgency by Qatar (joined by Kuwait and the UAE). At no point was the campaign halted to see whether the bombardment and missile strikes had persuaded Qaddafi to cease his attacks and negotiate with his internal adversaries.
The Libyan campaign was another risk-free venture, too. The world’s mightiest alliance took nine months (March–October 2011) to defeat a besieged dictator with a rusty third-rate military machine. An estimated 1,200–2,000 Libyans were killed prior to NATO’s intervention; some 30,000 perished in the months following it. Qaddafi contributed mightily to the tally, but insurgent attacks on the regime’s strongholds and, to a much smaller extent, NATO airstrikes, also did their part. The similarity to Kosovo in terms of the contrast between announced goals (saving lives urgently) and results is striking. Despite the influence revolutionary liberals attribute to human rights norms, once again the interveners showed no inclination to take risks, even as the death toll mounted. This attitude mirrored public opinion. Less than half of Americans polled by Gallup supported the Libyan intervention. The numbers fell further when they were asked about more forceful (read: dangerous) action as the campaign dragged on. This tepidity was scarcely unique to this particular intervention, or to Americans.
Postwar Libya is a honeycomb of militias. Having bled and died for the revolution, they now ignore the central government’s writ, run illicit businesses, operate protection rackets, lobby for the return of polygamy (or just practice it anyway), murder American diplomats and fight turf wars—all as Libyan leaders watch helplessly. Worse, the state pays some militias to control others, thus deepening its dependence on them and marginalizing an already feeble military and police force. But militias are not the only problem. The historic antipathies between tribal confederations in Tripolitania and Cyrenaica have reemerged. Radical Islamist groups have become powerful players, particularly in Libya’s east, and intimidate and attack those whose lifestyles, politics and religious beliefs they reject. Such is post-Qaddafi Libya, and we have yet to mention the mayhem in Mali, which is a direct result—via the Tuareg factor—of the Libyan war, and its potential spread to Algeria, Niger, Burkino Faso and Mauritania.
Libya’s chaos must, of course, be seen in perspective. The new order is young, as is the post-Qaddafi state. Libya lacks any democratic history and was shackled by a dictatorship for decades; its sense of statehood is also very recent, dating in earnest only from 1951. Even in the best of all worlds, it needs time to produce a polity that is stable, efficient and liberal. Achieving jus post bellum is laborious, inglorious and expensive. The odds of success are long, and outsiders engaged in the effort face numerous risks, not to mention impatient citizens at home. Revolutionary liberals, given their faith in social engineering, appear undaunted by any of this. Not for them are the warnings of a Burke or an Oakeshott.
Though some advocates of humanitarian intervention underscore the importance of jus post bellum, their counsel hasn’t transformed policy or won public support. Once the guns fall silent, a round of self-congratulation follows. Attention turns elsewhere. The cameras and speechmaking move on. Postwar disappointments and outright failures are blamed on the incompetence, corruption and culture of the locals; never mind that the “locals” inherited a colossal mess, both because of the consequences of the intervention and the nature of the regimes with which intervening states sometimes did business for years. “We gave them freedom, didn’t we? It’s not our fault if they squandered it.” That’s the stock response when the contrast between anticipation and achievement yawns.
Another standard response is to point to Bosnia as a success. But Bosnia’s political system illustrates the institutionalization of ethnic cleansing. Political identity and ethnic affiliation are inseparable, and the three main nationalities lead separate lives. Serbs in Republika Srpska look to Serbia; Croats in the “Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina” to Croatia; Bosniaks look hard for any help at all, increasingly to Turkey. This delicate construction of frozen reciprocal hatreds has required a multi-year military deployment, first by NATO and then by the European Union. Since Dayton, Bosnia has received more than $15 billion in international aid, yet the unemployment rate at the end of 2012 was nearly 45 percent.
he contention that liberal norms are reshaping received conceptions of sovereignty and creating a consensus on humanitarian intervention amounts to the wish fathering the thought. The reality is that what one part of the world sees as universal concord, another sees as cover for self-interest and double standards. Armed interventions have thus occasioned controversy, not convergence. Even those Western governments that profess the most allegiance to humanitarian ideals have shown themselves unwilling to pay any significant price to promote them. Their citizens certainly do not want to foot the bills and face the dangers involved in serving as guardians and enforcers of global justice.
The fact is that our world is too heterogeneous to permit a consensus-based redefinition of sovereignty or universally accepted, operationally substantive criteria for armed intervention in response to atrocities. Selectivity and self-interest will, perforce, reign, and that is no prolegomenon for a global agreement on the high-voltage controversy surrounding the circumstances under which force can legitimately override sovereignty. The search for common ground here will be more divisive than unifying, especially when the focus moves from airy statements to the fine print and, above all, to implementation. That is not a bad thing, for the R2P impulse is in practice strategically obtuse, easily subverted, prone to counterproductive outcomes, and, above all, ethically incoherent in its foundational premises.
There is no final fix for mass atrocities in our world, let alone one based on abstractions advanced by a coalition of Davos poseurs and Western academics. In the end, those groups of people vulnerable to abuse need to engage in maximum feasible self-help to reduce their vulnerability. As for the rest of us, we can help sometimes if we’re careful about it, and we probably should, but, said Wallace Stevens, “the imperfect is our paradise.” So it is, and ever will be.
1On the spread of human rights norms, see Kathryn Sikkink, The Justice Cascade: How Human Rights Prosecutions Are Changing World Politics (Norton, 2011) and Ruti Teitel, Humanity’s Law (Oxford University Press, 2011). See also Jeremy Rabkin, “The Justice Trickle”, The American Interest (November/December 2011).
2The most comprehensive explication of R2P remains Gareth Evans, The Responsibility to Protect: Ending Mass Atrocity Crimes Once and For All (Brookings Institution Press, 2008).
3Sørensen, A Liberal World Order in Crisis: Choosing Between Imposition and Constraint (Cornell University Press, 2011).
4See, for example, G. John Ikenberry, Liberal Leviathan: The Origins, Crisis, and Transformation of the American World Order (Princeton University Press, 2012).
5Anne Marie Slaughter, “Fiddling While Libya Burns”, New York Times, March 11, 2011 and Slaughter, “How to Halt the Butchery in Syria”, New York Times, February 23, 2012. Compare Max Boot, “Qaddafi Must Go”, Weekly Standard, March 28, 2011, and Max Boot and Michael Doran, “Five Reasons to Intervene in Syria Now”, New York Times, September 26, 2012.
6See Council of Europe, Parliamentary Assembly, Committee on Legal Affairs and Human Rights, “Inhuman Treatment of People and Illicit Trafficking in Human Organs in Kosovo”, December 12, 2010.