Friday, June 15, 2012

R2P's regime-change conundrum

If you haven't yet, I recommend you all read the Report of the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (pdf), the foundation of R2P doctrine. As far as reports go, this is a pretty good one: full of interesting thoughts and extremely readable. Please read all of it, but here we are going to focus on the sections related to military intervention and specifically chapter 4.

This report begins the discussion of deciding to intervene by establishing the starting point as the principle of non-intervention, comparing this principle to the Hippocratic principle - first do no harm (para 4.11, pg 31). States should respect other states' sovereignty as a starting point and should only violate their sovereignty when culprit states "shock the conscience of mankind" (more Americans should read and think hard about this principle - and not just within the context of Syria).

The report then goes on to establish six criteria for military intervention:

  1. right authority
  2. just cause
  3. right intention
  4. last resort
  5. proportional means
  6. reasonable prospects
The first two are discussed at length within the report.  But these are the go/no go criteria to determine if we should intervene. I think it would be difficult to for anyone supporting intervention in Syria to legitimately claim that criteria 1 and 6 have been met as of yet with some other criteria certainly disputable. Obtaining the right authority will be difficult and pro-interventionists have generally glossed over the Syrian military's ability to act against international intervention (admittedly, anti-interventionists have been particularly pessimistic on this criteria).  While the report's discussion of these criteria is interesting, it is not exactly earth-shattering stuff. 

Except for the section on right intention (para 4.33, pg 33):
The primary purpose of the intervention must be to halt or avert human suffering. Any use of military force that aims from the outset, for example, for the alteration of borders or the advancement of a particular combatant group's claim to self-determination, cannot be justified. Overthrow of regimes is not, as such, a legitimate objective, although disabling that regime's capacity to harm its own people may be essential to discharging the mandate of protection - and what is necessary to achieve that disabling will vary from case to case. 
Overthrow of regimes is not, as such, a legitimate objective. While this aligns with R2P's primary purpose to halt or avert human suffering, this presents a massive hurdle to the reasonable prospects criteria.  The "although" clause seems to suggest that rendering the regime ineffective may be legitimate in some cases, but regime change is not a legitimate objective. In a case like Syria where the regime abjures its responsibilities by committing acts violence against its own citizens, the problem is with the regime itself. How is military intervention supposed to succeed if the objective of that military action cannot remove the source of the human suffering? I see three potential consequences of this statement if the regime does not step aside on its own accord:
  1. The intervening force overthrows the regime out of operational and/or strategic necessity. However, such a precedence calls into question the legitimacy of R2P as violating its own principles. 
  2. The intervening force does not overthrow the regime, remaining compliant with R2P's principles, but renders the regime ineffective by destroying its ability to use force - which in cases like Syria effectively destroys the regime's ability to govern. The potential for greater instability is quite significant through a lack of governance or a more evenly-matched civil war. 
  3. The intervening force only limits the regime's ability to project force into safe zones in order to prevent instability - through defensive or offensive methods. However, the regime maintains the ability to use force, which could be projected in the absence of a foreign military presence. If you like decades-long military operations with little hope of resolution, you pick this option (see: Kosovo, Sinai). Is this a reasonable prospect? 
Dr. Slaughter and others smart on R2P have been pushing for military action somewhere between consequences 2 and 3. If the removing the regime is not in play, success is logically unlikely if the regime is the primary cause of the human suffering in the first place. This may be where R2P has its greatest doctrinal weakness as it attempts to align multiple principles that are often at odds with each other. 

The other problem with these criteria are their lack of application to the internal strategic formulations of potential participating nations. As Dan Trombly deftly observes, every military action should be placed within and debated in terms of ends, ways, and means. Colin Gray makes the same point with regard to counterinsurgency, but his comments apply to R2P as well - it cannot be a theory unto itself. What are the United States' interests in intervening, especially if it is likely to result in an extended military campaign? The report discusses this in chapters 4 and 8 with regard to domestic political will, concluding that good international citizenship should be a national interest. How extensive are the means we are willing to commit for good international citizenship when those means may more directly benefit the American people through domestic spending or kept in reserve for actual security threats?  Halting human suffering in Syria is an excellent objective, but if the means of doing so will be tied up for 10 years or more (most likely scenario), is it still worth doing? While military force may sometimes be in a nation's interest, good international citizenship is not inherently a national interest in every case. Especially if the cost is too high or the prospects for success too low. America does its best to do right by the world, but there are limits to that magnanimity because of our own internal interests and needs. 

With the preclusion of removing the Syrian regime, interventionists must show reasonable prospects for success, keeping in mind the American people are probably not inclined to count another decade-long commitment of military force with an indeterminable outcome as a reasonable prospect for success.  I'm certainly not so inclined. 


  1. Very helpful discussion, thank you. The tension you spotlight within the R2P doctrine's own criteria is tremendous and, as you show, potentially crippling.

    My only quibble here is with your decision to tack the discussion of tensions between principle-driven and interest-driven policy on at the end. That really deserves its own post---or paper, or book. I think it's a much harder case to make, because it depends, in part, on first principles over which different camps reasonably disagree.

    My sense is that, despite their occasional protestations to the contrary, many vocal advocates of R2P see human rights rather than national interests as their starting point, in which case objections based on appeals to national interest are irrelevant. A rights-based approach does allow for consideration of means and consequences, but the burden of proof is shifted to those who would not act. Instead of needing to find a reason to prioritize intervention in a particular case over all other possible uses of the same national resources, the need to act is defined as a communal obligation, and the task becomes one of figuring out how best to do that with available means, mindful of likely consequences.

    I'm not saying that approach is correct; honestly, I'm still unsure how to think about this problem. I'm just saying that I don't think that an appeal to national interests really gets to the heart of that debate.

  2. Excellent series of posts.

    A version of realpolitik always sneaks into any intervention, even under the guise of humanitarian interventions. What do I mean by this?

    For example, some of the most prominent proponents of R2P favor robust economic and development-related engagagements with regimes that have put down their own people in a brutal fashion.

    So, when leaving the pages of theory and entering the real world, interventionists always make trade-offs along the lines of what is "doable". This is often viewed as realpolitik and self-serving behavior by outside observers. The responses may encourage brutality of its own.

    The State Department has a long history of cozying up to regimes--and still does--with which it wishes to engage in development. Certain R2P proponents had no problem doing the same during their tenures. And yes, the world is a hard place, we can't intervene everywhere, sometimes engagement is the better part of valor, and sometimes engagement allows bureaucratic and turf battles to bring in more cash and authority.

    I feel terrible for the people of Syria but there are other people I feel terrible for, too. It's not simply that it wouldn't be practical to intervene in these other areas of conflicts, it's that the people in power are close to people in Washington who will then conveniently forget their R2P principles.

    The details on the ground are never pretty.

    - Madhu

  3. Yes, I know I am being oblique but I am not in the mood to link to specifics because I seem to really make people angry when I do so and I am not in the mood. It wouldn't be very hard to follow my train of thought, though.

    - Madhu

  4. Finally, I might be more inclined to listen to the R2Pers if they were more honest about the points I make, that the human rights they are interested in align very neatly with their own preconceptions of the world. Other human rights violations take less precedent and that is because human beings are not perfect, have their own biases and intellectual hobby-horses, and make mistakes.

    Human fallibility does not seem to be a part of the grandiose rhetoric of protecting human rights.

    Failure isn't simply about not intervening, it's that proponents favor the rights, even if inadvertently, of some over others. Because this is human nature.

    Am I making sense? I may have to do some specific examples, sometime.

    - Madhu

    1. "proponents favor the rights, even if inadvertently, of some over others."

      Spot on.

  5. Jay - thanks for your comment. Yes, interests seem to be a very separate topic from the problem of R2P exclusion of regime change as a legitimate activity. And certainly deserves a lot of analysis on its own. But it is discussed in the "right intentions" section of the paper and hence I thought it was part of this discussion, however awkwardly it's cobbled on here.

    I'm not sure I agree with the communal obligation perspective on means. How could a nation not prioritize how it spends resources? If the obligation compels nations to intervene if they are able, there is a good chance the means available won't ensure prospects of success. Then what? Are nations supposed to then cut on their more tangible interests to support this communal obligation in order to corral the necessary means for reasonable prospects?

    I'm more inclined to prioritize the interests of principles with other national interests. And I think you could infer how highly I'd prioritize these interests...

  6. Jason - I applaud your serious engagement with this issue and the background materials, but on this one point you are mistaken: R2P does not rule out regime change as a means to the end of protecting a population. It only rules out regime change as the end in and of itself.

    The evolution of NATO targeting during Operation Unified Protector is illustrative. When targeting Qaddafi's forces tactically (e.g. those specifically deployed with orders to kill civilians) failed to end the threat (he just kept sending more), NATO went after the regime's operational and finally strategic targets. In that case, ending the regime proved the only way to end the attacks.

    Also keep in mind that Rwanda and Kosovo were among the chief examples that informed the report - both cases where an intractably vicious regime was the source of the threat. If you haven't read them already, the Report of the International Commission on the Balkans, the Secretary-General's Report on the Fall of Srebrenica, and Kofi Annan's 'Two Concepts of Sovereignty' essay provide important context.

    You should also look back over the section on 'right authority', as it explicitly warns that failure by the UNSC to authorize military action in the face of an obvious crisis calls into question the legitimacy of the Council, and comes very close to endorsing un-authorized intervention in such cases. While UNSC authorization has since become enshrined in R2P as it has evolved at the UN, there has been a parallel advocacy of a 'responsibility not to veto' for the P5 which may or may not have had some influence on abstentions over Libya.

  7. Madhu,

    While engagement may be the lesser evil in cases where the human costs of intervention would outstrip the benefits, criticizing the US for pragmatism under such circumstances is absurd. Would you rather have the US maintain its purity while choosing a course of action unlikely to benefit anyone?

    Also, your point about favoring the rights of some over others smacks of the worst kind of moral equivalency. Not all types of human rights abuses are equal, or amenable to the same solution set. Long term development has a chance of reducing the number of Nigerian women being abused by their spouses. It was not going to stop the Rwandan genocide once the killing began. And while you may feel bad for people in places other than Syria, can you point to other conflicts in which civilians are being deliberately targeted so systematically and in such large numbers?

    Being cognizant of knock-on effects and taking steps to prevent reprisal killings are indisputable requirements for operations intended to halt atrocities (and ones we don't always do a good job at - see Kosovo in particular). However, the complexities of these situations and the potential for unintended consequences does not negate the argument for principled action. Rather, it demands caution, serious analysis, and the rejection of Manichean narratives as a basis for action.

    Every security challenge is complex. Singling out the complexity of this subset as a reason to reject R2P wholesale is A) a well-worn tactic used by opponents of almost every intervention, and B) intellectually dishonest.

    I am not saying we should launch a military intervention against Syria at this point. But we shouldn't be ruling it out for reasons that apply to every security challenge we ever face.


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