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Libya, Iraq and the Responsibility to Protect

Friday, Feb. 25, 2011

If the debate about how the U.S. and the international community should respond to the carnage in Libya highlights one thing, it is that we still have not arrived at either a domestic or global consensus about when and why to intervene militarily in the affairs of a sovereign state. I include Iraq in the title of this post for three reasons. First, the pre-emptive nature of the Iraq invasion in many ways served to sidetrack the debate over humanitarian interventions. Second, the outcome of the Iraq War served to chasten the broad middle of the policy debate, if not the most ardent hawks or doves.

And third, the events in Libya serve as an uncomfortable reminder to those, like myself, who opposed the Iraq War from the beginning: namely, that even the best scenario of a known WMD proliferator willingly coming back in from the cold does not exclude subsequent humanitarian violations that confront the international community with the dilemma of whether or not to intervene. So while those who argued that the U.N. inspections regime was sufficient to contain Saddam Hussein's WMD program were in retrospect correct, in all likelihood, the question of whether to intervene in Iraq would have come up in a humanitarian context had Hussein remained in power.

If such interventions carried no costs and were guaranteed success, there would obviously be no debate. If there were some formula for determining the costs and chances of success, the debate would at least be guided by reason. Andrew Exum's four-point checklist of questions for U.S. policymakers before committing U.S. force is sound and compelling, insomuch as these decisions are based on rational calculations.

But the overriding argument for a humanitarian intervention is compassion, an inherently irrational emotion. And the debate can be catalyzed by something as intangible as an event or even a single image that resonates with domestic or global opinion. In the case of Iraq, that event was Sept. 11, which introduced the irrational component of collective fear and vengeance, however misdirected, into the debate. In the case of Iran's post-election protests in June 2009, the image of Neda became a rallying cry for the opposition Green movement as well as its international sympathizers. Other instances of similar outrages abound -- Zimbabwe, North Korea and Belarus, for instance -- but because they lack a catalyzing trigger, they manage to pass under the radar of global opinion.

In the case of Libya, there is also a compelling narrative with regional dimensions at play. The violence with which the Iranian regime, or the Myanmar junta, put down peaceful protests was horrifying, but both were isolated cases. The violence with which Moammar Gadhafi is cracking down on protests could be the firewall that stops history in its tracks. That possibility could be the tipping point for how the West and the world reacts.

I should add that I don't think the lack of consensus on humanitarian interventions reflects a policy failure, so much as the inherent complexity and difficulty posed by the issue. Those who support such interventions regardless of rational calculation as well as those who oppose them based only on cold reason are the lucky few. For the rest of us, the hard part here is the human part, which by definition means accepting our own fallibility.