On Monday, President Obama sketched plans for his administration’s genocide prevention policies in a speech at the U.S. Holocaust Museum. The so-called Atrocities Prevention Board will serve as an opinion aggregator of senior officials from across the government, and will provide for synchronized intelligence-sharing and policy preparation in response to the threat of mass killings.
Last year, the White House identified the prevention of mass atrocities and genocide as a critical national security interest – not to mention moral responsibility – of the United States.
Fair enough. Since the time of St. Augustine, it has been ethically justified to save the innocent from certain harm. Now, modern considerations of national interest have been more broadly defined to include interventions aimed at ending genocide, mass murder, mass rape or slavery as morally obligatory.
One might add that given recent abuses of the “humanitarian” label, multilateralism is now morally significant when considering the “Five Ws” of military intervention.
Ideally, the end goal of such intervention is neither annexation nor damage to long-term territorial integrity; however, questions of sovereignty and the use of force weigh against the consequences of systematic violations of human rights.
In his speech at the Holocaust Museum, Obama discussed actions he’d taken to prevent mass murder since assuming office. He asked his audience to recall justifications for military intervention against the Gaddafi regime, premised on an imminent threat to Libyan civilians.
Of course, the UN’s altruistic R2P mandate quickly dissolved into a radical departure from its stated aim to protect unarmed innocents in Benghazi. Instead, Western powers decapitated Colonel Gaddafi’s deeply entrenched power structure and cleared space for the establishment of a shadow regime we neither understand, nor particularly care to discuss.
Have just wars and humanitarian interventions now declared open season on existing sovereignty through forcible, if barely justifiable, democratization and regime change? If regime change is now a cause of war, this would suggest a significant expansion of the just war doctrine of jus ad belli.
This is problematic for a number of reasons. But above all else, humanitarian intervention is chronically shortsighted.
I’ll echo the president: consider Libya. Shifty militias that fought Gaddafi now ignore hollow ceasefires to fight one another. Absent an actual gendarmerie, the ruling National Transitional Council has proven powerless to convince the umpteen private militias who fought Gaddafi to lay down their weapons. Tuareg fighters, armed to the teeth by the Gaddafi regime, are stoking tensions in neighboring Mali. 680,000 Libyan refugees fled the country during the fighting, and many remain holed-up in Egypt and Tunisia – threatening their own transition to representative regimes.
Perhaps most importantly, President Obama’s Libya campaign sunk any hopes of multilateral mandate to intervene in Syria – or anywhere else for that matter – now that we’ve reminded Russia and China we’re ready, willing, and able to impose ordnance-laden statecraft on pesky, problem regimes. I assure you, veto power exercised at the Security Council is more than a protective measure to shelter a close ally and arms buyer in Bashir al-Assad – it’s a bold statement against an evolving Western imperium to topple unfriendly autocrats, via UN diktat.
Given this reality, and Obama’s admission that “we cannot and should not […] intervene militarily every time there’s an injustice in the world,” one wonders why he wasted our time announcing an advisory panel that could do more harm than good, if it wasn’t completely toothless, to begin with?