R2P’s Problem From Hell
I finally got around to reading the Michael Hastings piece in Rolling Stone on Obama’s decision to go into Libya. Regrettably, I think Hastings is far too forgiving and simply not critical enough of the administration and perhaps of his sources. I won’t respond to the entire piece, as it would be too lengthy, but there are a few points I want to bring up before this post-Gadhafi reconstruction euphoria completely rewrites history.
According to Hastings, some in the Obama administration, most notably U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice, were eager to have Libya “become the first test case for R2P”:
In January 2009, during her first speech at the U.N. Security Council, Rice reinforced the Obama administration’s commitment to a theory called “responsibility to protect.” R2P, as it is known in foreign-policy circles, is a U.N. doctrine accepted in 2005 that laid the international framework for humanitarian intervention. Although the Bush administration endorsed R2P, it was criticized – by Rice and others – for not putting the doctrine into practice to prevent civilian deaths in Darfur in 2006. As defined by Rice in her speech to the Security Council, R2P states that the “international community has a responsibility to protect civilian populations from violations of international humanitarian law when states are unwilling or unable to do so.”
Unless, of course, the US or its allies are the ones putting civilians at risk. Take, say, Iraq. By the most conservative estimates available, the 2003 invasion of Iraq and the subsequent war and occupation eradicated well over 100,000 human lives, the vast majority of whom were civilians (more inclusive estimates go much higher). All kinds of horrible war crimes were committed throughout the war. On weak and falsified evidence, the Bush administration took the United States to war against a non-threatening Iraq. This makes it a war of aggression, which in the words of the Nuremberg Trial is the “supreme international crime, differing only from other war crimes in that it contains within itself the accumulated evil of the whole.” By the logic of R2P, France, whose government vehemently opposed the war, had the right – indeed, the responsibility – to militarily attack the United States in order to “protect civilian populations” of Iraq “from [impending] violations of international humanitarian law” from a belligerent US. Does anybody, anywhere actually buy this?
Or take Obama’s surge in Afghanistan for another example. For virtually every six month period since the beginning of the surge, the rate of civilian casualties as increased considerably. Children, for example, are one Afghan constituency that have borne the brunt of this rise in civilian death. Tens of thousands have been killed since the start of the war and a big chunk since the start of the surge. Such a proliferation in casualty rates for innocent people was a perfectly predictable consequence of Obama’s impending surge in 2009.
One of the hallmarks of the surge strategy has been raiding Afghan homes in the middle of the night. “An estimated 12 to 20 night raids now occur per night,” according to a report from the Open Society Institute, “resulting in thousands of detentions per year, many of whom are non-combatants.” And many of the associated tactics, like “mass detention operations, holding entire villages for questioning on site for prolonged periods of time,” may violate international law, the report found. Serious violations of international humanitarian law take place in Afghan prisons, where detainees are systematically tortured – again, an easily predictable consequence of the unbounded post-surge US support for one of the most corrupt governments in the world. US-supported local militias, referred to by Gen. Petraeus as “arguably the most critical element” in the surge effort, regularly commit gross violations of human rights with impunity. Just recently it was revealed that American troops forced Afghan civilians to march ahead of them on roads believed to have been filled with bombs and landmines planted by insurgents, a grave breach of the international laws of war.
Again, using the anointed doctrine of “humanitarian” intervention recently exemplified by the Obama administration in Libya, would it not be justified for, say, China to bomb the Pentagon and the White House? Of course not, because R2P is not about humanitarian intervention, it’s about who wields power and – as in most issues in international affairs – rules and norms don’t apply to the US. We’re exceptional.
There is one more piece to this R2P puzzle worth mentioning. Hastings does note it in his piece, but unfortunately it’s almost in passing. That is, where there is potential genocide or mass killing, the R2P doctrine obligates the US to intervene to stop it. Hastings writes:
Joining Rice in the push for intervention was Samantha Power, the former Harvard professor and author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning A Problem From Hell, which argues that the West must be willing to take military action to prevent genocide in other countries.
This clearly comes with certain qualifications as implemented by Washington. In Libya, Gadhafi’s pre-NATO intervention body count may not even hit 1,000 - yes, a serious crime, but minuscule compared to the tens of thousands claimed by US propaganda. Compare that to the death toll of approximately 300,000 in the Sudan. This contradiction can also be seen in Obama’s incessant support for brutal, murderous responses to peaceful Arab Spring protests in Yemen, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, etc.
An interesting case is Syria, where around 3,000 civilians have died as a result of Bashar al-Assad’s violent crackdown. Why Libya, but not Syria? Well, Assad is not an ally of the US, so the thousands of dead civilians don’t harm US “credibility.” Gadhafi, on the other hand, was an ally of the US at the time of his crackdown. But he was a dispensable ally whose oil could be exploited to greater benefit without him, as opposed to other Middle Eastern dictators (like Khalifa, Saleh, and the Saudis) who are indispensable. As Hastings reported, “[P]resident [Obama] apparently shared the impulse to use Libya to make up for the administration’s slow-footed response to the Arab Spring.” Indeed, its perfectly believable that the Obama administration launched the war in Libya for “credibility” – a public relations stunt for the Arab world’s perception of America. Here again we can see the bastardization of the R2P doctrine. How vacuous its altruistic pretensions!
R2P breaks down as soon as you take even a cursory look at how it is implemented by the esteemed hegemonic superpower, the Responsible One. It is not about “protecting civilian populations from violations of international humanitarian law,” especially when we or our allies are the violators. And there simply is no genuine concern in the halls of power in Washington for dying civilians, unless US interests or credibility is at stake.