The responsibility to protect is a bad idea. But it could be worse. President Obama’s speech to the UN General Assembly on Tuesday hinted how. At the conclusion of remarks that focused heavily on the Middle East, the president offered a strong endorsement of the doctrine, saying:
There will be times when the breakdown of societies is so great, the violence against civilians so substantial that the international community will be called upon to act.... While the United Nations was designed to prevent wars between states, increasingly we face the challenge of preventing slaughter within states. And these challenges will grow more pronounced as we are confronted with states that are fragile or failing -- places where horrendous violence can put innocent men, women and children at risk, with no hope of protection from their national institutions.
Obama held up Libya as a successful example of such multilateral use of force, arguing that the state would likely still be engulfed in conflict if the world had not acted. Yet what’s more remarkable is that there was no mention of Syria in this part of the speech. Isn’t it the case that the “breakdown of society” there is “great”? Isn’t the “violence against civilians” “substantial”? And aren’t the “innocent men, women and children at risk” in Syria, “with no hope of protection from their national institutions?” The latter point is key, as this is the center of the R2P idea—states must protect their civilians, and when they fail to, the international community must step in. The Assad government is clearly not living up to this standard—it has been using the institutions of the Syrian state against the Syrian people, with brutal effectiveness, for more than two years. Obama has to realize this—R2P’s most celebrated voice, Samantha Power, sits on his cabinet and probably helped write this part of the speech.
Indeed, Obama’s rhetoric on Syria closely parallels the rhetoric on R2P minutes later. Syria: “Assad’s traditional allies have propped him up, citing principles of sovereignty to shield his regime.” The responsibility to protect: “Sovereignty cannot be a shield for tyrants to commit wanton murder.” Syria: “Without a credible military threat, the Security Council had demonstrated no inclination to act at all.” R2P: “Different nations will not agree on the need for action in every instance...but [sovereignty can’t be] an excuse for the international community to turn a blind eye to slaughter.” Syria: “How do we address the choice of standing callously by while children are subjected to nerve gas, but we’re embroiling ourselves in someone else’s civil war?” R2P: “We live in a world of imperfect choices.... While we need to be modest in our belief that we can remedy every evil, and we need to be mindful that the world is full of unintended consequences, should we really accept the notion that the world is powerless in the face of a Rwanda or Srebrenica?” Syria: “The crisis in Syria and the destabilization of the region goes to the heart of broader challenges that the international community must now confront.... Conflicts between countries, but also conflicts within them.” R2P: “While the United Nations was designed to prevent wars between states, increasingly we face the challenge of preventing slaughter within states.”
The similarities are glaring. And Obama’s argument for going into Syria unilaterally—that the international community and particularly the Security Council were frozen not by disagreement but by a stubborn refusal to carry out their duties—aligns neatly with the move around the Security Council for the R2P action in Kosovo in 1999, and with the argument that would have been made had Russia and China resisted the R2P intervention in Libya in 2011. Yet even as it employed R2P talk and concepts in its aborted Syria intervention pitch, the administration meticulously avoided invoking the protection of innocent civilians—R2P’s goal—as a justification. Instead, officials leaned on the norm against the use of chemical weapons and the horror of using them against civilians—the justification was not that Syrian civilians were deliberately killed, but the means that had been used to deliberately kill them. The distinction wasn’t lost on Syrians, many of whom found it infuriating. Was America willing to defend their lungs, but not their lives?
Of course, the administration had many good reasons for making the distinction—after all, if its justification for war were saving lives, it would have acted sooner. And, as officials repeatedly emphasized, no number of cruise missiles could put Syria back together again. Yet at the bottom of it all, this was a decision rooted in the necessities of domestic politics (few Americans wanted to go into Syria) and of selfish national interests (Syria’s war hurts America, but not in a direct, urgent and vital way). Officials certainly would have preferred to defend both the norm against killing innocent civilians and the norm against using chemical weapons. But they recognized that the means available to them could only defend the latter.
So what? Politicians must compromise their principles all the time. Nowhere is this more obvious than in international affairs, where Communists cut deals with capitalists and the enemy of your enemy is sometimes your friend. Yet the responsibility to protect doctrine thinks it’s above the fray, that states have a moral obligation apart from their own interests to protect civilians in other states—by aid and diplomacy if possible, by force if necessary. It calls for selflessness. Yet states act from selfishness. The administration’s tacit distinction between killing civilians with gas and killing civilians with bullets, bombs or prolonged torture is but one example. And the political situation confronting the administration showed that this selfishness is often not from choice, but practical necessity.
The mediation of principle by necessity provides an opening for the critics who charge, as Obama noted in New York, that “America continues to seek control over the Middle East for our own purposes.” These critics argue that we invoke R2P for purely selfish motives—that we say we’re defending human rights, yet are really using them as an excuse to further our own dominance. They’re wrong. Our power is not at stake in Syria and was not in Libya. But invoking R2P only some of the time doesn’t help. By appropriating R2P rhetoric for a unilateral intervention that doesn’t aim to protect, the Obama administration managed to both cheapen our claim to stand for principles and further widen the set of possible causes of wars. And when there are more justifications for war, less national sovereignty, less trust in the purity of our motives, and less consultation with other major powers, the world is less safe for America—and for everyone else.