The R2P doctrine, “a new international security and human rights norm to address the international community’s failure to prevent and stop genocides, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity,” draws its moral authority from the primary responsibility of individual states to protect their own people. But when the state is unable or unwilling to take this responsibility, then the international community should first use “diplomatic, humanitarian and other peaceful means to protect populations from these crimes.”
Then the R2P doctrine lays out what effectively became U.S. policy toward Libya in both the U.S. process for action and the underlying moral rationale. “If a State fails to protect its populations or is in fact the perpetrator of crimes, the international community must be prepared to take stronger measures, including the collective use of force through the UN Security Council.” (emphasis in original)
When President Obama announced America’s involvement in the international military action, he made clear reference to the idea that force can be morally justified when the potential for genocide exists. In the president’s view, not to act in the face of threatened genocide would be to abdicate American moral authority.
“To brush aside America’s responsibility as a leader and - more profoundly - our responsibilities to our fellow human beings under such circumstances would have been a betrayal of who we are. Some nations may be able to turn a blind eye to atrocities in other countries. The United States of America is different. And as President, I refused to wait for the images of slaughter and mass graves before taking action.”
R2P as a moral justification for a nation’s use of force to prevent atrocity dovetails with Obama’s philosophy of history. “Sometimes,” the president argued when he announced the Libyan action, “the course of history threatens our common humanity.” In Obama’s view, the larger forces of human history require human action for some measure of justice to occur. In his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, the president spoke definitively about his deep conviction that “for all the cruelties and hardships of this world, we are not mere prisoners of fate. Our actions matter, and can bend history in the direction of justice.”
So the question is: Did the U.S. actions and the international use of force in Libya “bend history in the direction of justice”? Was it “justice” today when Gaddafi was killed?
First, what must be emphasized is what did not happen in Libya. Genocide did not happen. In her Pulitzer Prize winning work, “A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide,” Samantha Power, Special Assistant to President Obama and a senior director of the National Security Council, Power examines how “never again” has not actually been “never again” as the world believed after the horrors of the Holocaust. What must happen, Power argues, is the development of specific policies that include options to along a continuum to prevent and even stop on-going atrocity. She makes this exact point with passion and specificity, as seen in this video. The “toolbox” of foreign policy stays shut the more horrific the atrocities up to and including genocide.
Thus along with the R2P doctrine is the Obama Administration’s pursuit of a minimalist use of force to accomplish a specific goal.
This is also shown in other things that did not happen in in Libya. What did not happen is a ‘boots-on-the-ground’ decade long traditional war where civilians are caught and often killed in a protracted civil war, and American troops are killed and maimed in the largely fruitless “freedom agenda” pursued by force by a foreign power.
Instead, what we have seen from the Obama administration is realism about what force can and cannot accomplish; traditional military force has been shown in the Iraq and Afghan wars to be counter-productive in producing positive outcomes. Instead, it is the “toolbox” of smaller, more minimal uses of force used in support of, and at the invitation of, those who are fighting in their own country for their own freedom that is now being shown to be far more effective in accomplishing specific and limited foreign policy goals.
R2P and the development of policies on the humanitarian use of force by the Obama administration can be called “humanitarian realism”; force is justified when it can be minimal, when it is used in the service of the moral imperative to prevent genocide, and when it is used in partnership with people who are seeking greater freedom and democracy for their own nation.
Thus, ‘did justice happen in Libya today?’ is the wrong way to ask the question, as though justice is an absolute that can be achieved in an ideal world.
Instead, what happened today in Libya was a justified use of force as part of an overall struggle for self-determination by the Libyan people, supported by the international community, including the United States.
So, absolute justice was not achieved, but the arc of history for the Libyan people bent a little more toward justice in the ongoing human struggle for freedom and human rights.