When international coalition forces struck against Moammar Gadhafi's military outside the rebel stronghold of Benghazi in March, they were acting on a doctrine called "responsibility to protect," or R2P. The idea, not even a decade old and only embraced by the United Nations in 2005, is that a country's government could be held accountable — with military force, if necessary — for failing to ensure the well-being of its citizens.
In its November issue, Foreign Policyexplores the history of this doctrine — but what about its future? Was the successful toppling of the Gadhafi regime a new dawn for muscular humanitarianism or a false one? Did the invasion make the world less safe for dictators or for the rest of us? We convened a roundtable of experts to weigh in on what humanitarian intervention in the post-Libya world will look like.
How Libya made humanitarian intervention less likely
David Bosco is an assistant professor at American University's School of International Service and writes the Multilateralist blog for FP.
Imagine this alternate reality: In April 1994, thousands of American, British, and French forces seize control of the airport in Kigali, Rwanda, and then fan out across the country to stop what officials describe as an incipient genocide. As they attempt to restore order, the Western troops confront and clash with Hutu extremists. Several American soldiers are killed by snipers and a helicopter crash kills a dozen more. In Washington, Bill Clinton's administration faces outrage over the intervention, which draws immediate comparisons to the failed Somalia mission. Claims by administration officials that they prevented a massive bloodletting are greeted with derision on Capitol Hill, where support for costly humanitarian missions is weak.
All of which is to say that the "responsibility to protect" (R2P), the doctrine that guided this year's international intervention in Libya, has a structural problem, at least insofar as it involves military action to prevent atrocities. Early intervention in Rwanda might have saved as many as 500,000 lives, a stunning achievement. But it's almost certain that such a mission would not have been viewed as a stunning success. The problem is that R2P's successes will always be ambiguous and debatable, dogged by "what if"s. Its costs, meanwhile, will be painfully evident in the form of military expenditures and casualties and in whatever unintended consequences may follow an intervention. For that reason, the doctrine will struggle to build a record of success and cement its place as an international norm.
This dynamic has been apparent in Libya. British, French, and American leaders insist that they averted a massacre in Benghazi, but such claims are impossible to prove and easy to doubt, as many close observers of the situation have. Meanwhile, critics of the operation can without fear of contradiction point to the mission's price tag, the political complexities of post-Gadhafi Libya, and the diplomatic strains that the mission has produced with other U.N. Security Council members and within the NATO alliance. At least in the medium term, Libya has made humanitarian interventions less likely.
Coercive intervention is not the entirety of the R2P doctrine, which is fundamentally an attempt to change conceptions of what national sovereignty means. But a government that is clinging to power by violence can usually only be stopped by force. R2P is well on its way to becoming boilerplate in official reports, resolutions, and speeches. As an operational doctrine, however, it will always have to fight for its life.