Through the decision to intervene in favor of the Libyan rebels overwhelmed by Col. Gadhafi's troops, the Obama administration opened a chapter on international, but particularly American, military intervention: the responsibility to protect, yet limited military intervention.
Over the last week, the White House has been under fire from its harshest internal critics to justify U.S. involvement in the campaign against Col. Gadhafi. On March 28, Barack Obama presented his motives in a lengthy speech to the American nation.
Obama has avoided a Srebrenica
"It was not in our national interest." Shortly before, Gadhafi had compared the civilians who rose up against him to rats, warning that his troops would go door to door to punish them. "If we waited one more day, Benghazi, a city nearly the size of Charlotte, could suffer a massacre that would have reverberated across the region and stained the conscience of the world. ... I refused to wait for the images of slaughter and mass graves before taking action," stated President Obama. So, the Obama administration chose to act "preemptively" in order to stop an imminent humanitarian disaster. Benghazi would otherwise have very likely become Obama's Rwanda or Srebrenica.
And yet, America can't use military force to intervene wherever repression exists. In the case of Libya, a set of ideal circumstances (a legal mandate adopted by the Security Council, a coalition of the willing resolved to implement the will of the United Nations, with China and Russia giving an indirect OK) permitted America to utilize its unique capacities. Had they not done so, the credibility of the U.N., guarantor of international peace and security, would have been destroyed. Its resolutions under Chapter VII of the U.N. Charter would have been left nothing but "empty words." For Obama, himself a winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, the price of inaction would have been far greater.
On the other hand, Obama has firmly rejected a mission that exceeds the fixed limits of Resolution 1973. In other words, to go all the way — regime change. Not only would this have meant the dissolution of the international coalition and a loss of legitimacy but such an operational purpose would probably have ended up with the deployment of American ground troops in Libya. "We went down that road in Iraq. ... That is not something we can afford to repeat in Libya," said Obama. In retrospect, the price of neoconservative hubris, of the regime change in Saddam Hussein's Iraq, was a bill that today's America can hardly allow: American troops have been there for eight years; thousands of Americans and Iraqis have lost their lives; the military effort has involved an expenditure of one trillion dollars. Here, Obama seems to resonate directly with a warning given by Robert Gates a few weeks ago in a speech to cadets at West Point: "In my opinion, any future defense secretary who advises the president to again send a big American land army into Asia or into the Middle East or Africa should 'have his head examined.'"
Responsibility to protect
So, when do we expect America to use military force? Beyond the "necessary wars" of self-defense? In his speech, Obama laid out a long list of possible circumstances: "There will be times, though, when our safety is not directly threatened, but our interests and our values are. Sometimes, the course of history poses challenges that threaten our common humanity and our common security — responding to natural disasters, for example; or preventing genocide and keeping the peace; ensuring regional security and maintaining the flow of commerce." It may well be that America will be forced to engage in such scenarios, but it's worth noting the specifics of the Libyan formula, which could guide future interventions: The responsibility to take action should not belong only to Americans, but the aim should always be that of a community mobilization for collective action.
Further, we must not forget the umbrella doctrine that provided the ethical justification for the intervention in Libya: "the responsibility to protect." Because, along with Libya, this new principle of international relations sets legal precedent. Hence, the probability is that in the future America will intervene again in the name of the "responsibility to protect." It reinvents the nature of traditional sovereignty understood as immunity from external interference. Now, the emphasis does not fall on sovereignty as a right but on the responsibility attached to this right. When the state abdicates its primary duty (that of protecting its citizens), it will be assumed by the international community. Moreover, this responsibility is an intrinsic part of the Obama administration's world vision: It represents one of the pillars of the national security strategy of the United States.