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A Strange Gamble

None of this would matter if this were a humanitarian intervention to stop a massacre. But that is not what is happening in Libya today [bold mine-DL]. There would have been a cruel repression after a Gadhafi victory, and it would have been necessary to help rebels and dissidents escape and to make sure that they had a place to go. Watching the repression wouldn’t be easy (though we seem to be having no difficulty doing that in Bahrain and Yemen). But the overthrow of tyrants and the establishment of democracy has to be local work, and in this case, sadly, the locals couldn’t do it. ~Michael Walzer

Something that puzzles me about the way the U.S. has joined this war is that the U.S. in particular has explicitly defined the intervention in terms of the “responsibility to protect” and acted accordingly, but it has gone about it in a way that seems almost designed to make it politically very difficult for any future administration to follow its example, and it has done so in a country where invoking the “responsibility to protect” doesn’t seem all that appropriate. Michael Lind has written a strong critique of the unconstitutionality of U.S. participation in the Libyan war, and he notes that the lack of Congressional authorization reinforces the perception that supporters of working through international institutions believe that these institutions are more important than national institutions:

By taking part in a war unrelated to American defense on the basis of a U.N. Security Council resolution, without asking the House and the Senate for a joint resolution as the basis of his authority, President Obama has validated the fears of the critics that U.S. participation in the United Nations would informally amend the Constitution, by transferring authority to initiate all kinds of wars from Congress to the president.

The enforcement of R2P relies heavily on the United Nations as the appropriate institutional framework for authorizing interventions to protect civilian populations, but despite the Security Council’s approval of UNSCR 1973 a Libyan intervention threatens to undermine both the doctrine and the institution politically even if the intervention succeeds in its basic goal of protecting civilians in rebel-held areas. The way that the administration has committed the U.S. to this conflict will reinforce American distrust of international institutions, undermine the domestic political legitimacy of commitments made to and through those institutions, and sour the American public on their brand of humanitarian intervention by pushing it through in an unconstitutional way that shows no respect for the American public or American institutions.

Apart from removing a legal objection to continued U.S. participation, the value of Congressional debate and authorization to proponents of intervention should be obvious. Humanitarian interventionists are already laboring under the political burden that the war they are supporting has nothing to do with U.S. security interests, and most of the public opposes U.S. involvement in Libya, but how much worse is it going to be for them and the “responsibility to protect” if they don’t submit the intervention to significant Congressional and public scrutiny? If you think the “freedom agenda” has acquired a bad reputation, just wait until “responsibility to protect” becomes more firmly linked in the public mind with unconstitutional warfare and executive overreach.

Mark Leon Goldberg has acknowledged that the Libyan intervention will be perceived as vindicating or damaging these ideas:

People in the human rights community, UN supporters and advocates of “the responsibility to protect” have a great deal riding on the success of this intervention in Libya. The Obama administration has basically followed the script: pursue non-military measures to deter a mass atrocity; then when those measures are exhausted use the United Nations to confer the legal and political legitimacy to the intervention; finally, assemble a coalition to keep the American footprint as light as possible.

As Walzer argues, however, they have followed the script in a situation where the “responsibility to protect” doesn’t really apply. This is what doesn’t make sense. If this were an exceptional case where the “responsibility to protect” applied, it might be easier to understand why the administration acted this way. To proceed in this way for the sake of intervening in Libya’s civil war is to do significant political damage in the U.S. to the international institutions on which the “responsibility to protect” as a doctrine depends. Non-interventionists and realists are bound to be skeptical of most humanitarian interventions, but advocates of the “responsibility to protect” should be very concerned that the misguided application of R2P arguments in Libya will do for the “responsibility to protect” what the war in Iraq did for the idea of democracy promotion.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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