In the early years of the Obama administration, the left dismissed claims of Obama’s radical intentions, frequently offering up his hawkish policies in Iraq and Afghanistan as Exhibit A. Rightly understood, the Libyan intervention explodes these denials, not only confirming Obama’s deeply unconventional intentions with regard to American national interests, but also linking his internationalist vision to his passion for wealth redistribution and equality-of-result at home. And as both Rieff and Feith-Cropsey note, the real long-term goals of the Libyan intervention have been largely hidden from the public by the war’s most influential advocates.
The first thing that Kurtz misses is that the Libyan intervention has not helped the actual R2P doctrine at all. Advancing this doctrine may be what some of the war’s advocates want, but they continue to overlook how Libya is badly undermining the doctrine they have used to justify military action. These goals haven’t been “largely hidden from the public.” Kurtz, Feith, and Cropsey are all very far from the mark.
Rieff’s argument is that Libya has confirmed that it is only the use of military force that R2P can sanction as a last resort that governments are going to use, because it is the one part of the doctrine that they can readily use. Rieff writes:
What Evans has never been willing to entertain is that whatever outcome he and the other architects of R2P might have wished for, its military aspect remains the most usable element of the doctrine because it is the only one that is both coherent and practicable. All the rest—the prevention, the diplomacy, the raising of alarms, the economic and political carrots and sticks—depend for their efficacy on the ability of international actors to identify states at risk and to focus on ameliorating the situation before the horrors R2P was devised to try to prevent begin to occur. That is all very well and good in the abstract, but in reality the list of states where genocide and the like is possible is very long, and the resources needed to attend to all of them are simply unavailable.
The R2P doctrine was supposed to be different from the humanitarian interventionism of the previous decade, and Libya has shown that this isn’t the case. While it has the formal authorization that many of them lacked, Libya represents a reversion to 1990s-style interventions. According to its foremost supporters, that represents the failure of their attempt to make the doctrine into more than that.
It is true that Rieff criticizes the doctrine’s supporters for their unrealistic ambitions:
What Evans is positing are commitments and resources that do not exist and that it is unreasonable to suppose ever will exist.
Kurtz badly misunderstands how this applies to Obama and Libya. According to Kurtz, Libya proves that the administration has embraced the entire doctrine and all of its far-fetched goals. This is almost certainly wrong, and it is definitely not what Rieff claims. Rieff says that Libya shows instead that the only part of the doctrine that the administration is interested in using is the part that gives it justification for using force for ostensibly humanitarian reasons:
Instead, as the Libyan case illustrates, R2P’s most immediate relevance is that it can be used quickly and effectively as a legal and moral justification for military intervention. Evans is correct when he insists that the doctrine’s ambitions are far larger. Where he is wrong is in continuing to claim that, in practice, there has been all that much movement away from the “droit d’ingérence.” Some of his recent speeches suggest that Evans himself realizes this. Having greeted the passage of Resolutions 1970 and 1973 with profound satisfaction, noting on March 24 that the Security Council had “written exactly the right script,” Evans has since worried publicly that as NATO action failed to dislodge Qaddafi, its military operations began to stretch the UN mandate to protect Libyan civilians to its “absolute limit.” For Evans, the great danger is that this mission creep will accelerate the risk “of buyers’ remorse from those who did not oppose Resolution 1973, and of a backlash when the next extreme [responsibility-to-protect] case comes before the Security Council.”
The existence of the R2P doctrine made acquiring authorization for intervention in Libya possible, but it was mainly because the doctrine was useful in facilitating the intervention that France, Britain, and the U.S. made use of it. Whatever the views of individual figures inside the administration, the administration as a whole clearly has no intention of adhering to the doctrine’s limits or following through on its requirements. The Libyan war has long since exceeded its formal mandate, buyers’ (or rather abstainers’) remorse has already set in, and the backlash is already in full swing. Obama has done supporters of the R2P doctrine no favors by linking their goals to the ill-defined war in Libya.
The perverse idea that the U.S. involvement in Libya represents an administration bent on “restraining America” is nothing more than the product of partisan minds.