It’s not just that the United States faces these issues in Libya. In recent decades, Washington and its allies encountered similar challenges in Somalia, in response to Serbian atrocities in the Balkans, and elsewhere.
No intervention is simple. Yet part of the reason political leaders face such difficult choices is that our armed forces — and those of our allies — resist thinking about or planning for these kinds of contingencies.
The basic components of military action — from combined arms maneuvers to convoy protection — may remain similar from operation to operation. But a mission to stop mass atrocities is conducted in a different context and for a different purpose than other conventional military engagements.
Interveners interject themselves between victims and perpetrators. However genuine their humanitarian intentions, the interveners inevitably take sides in the conflict, often taking on imperfect allies as well. Victims and perpetrators can switch roles during a conflict, confounding assumptions and drastically altering perceptions of the intervening force.
Unlike battles to win territory, efforts to save civilians cannot be refought. Failure is permanent. Yet the demand for swift response can lead to painful compromises, such as launching attacks without the ability to distinguish entirely between combatants and civilians.
Different tools and approaches can help create better options for responding to mass atrocities. For example, the American military’s fast-developing surveillance capabilities make it possible to record and expose what happens on the ground, which is critical for assessing, deterring and halting mass killings. But ensuring this transparency requires planning far in advance of a particular crisis.
Unfortunately, there is no doctrine for planning and conducting mass-atrocity response operations. Nor is there a guide to how the rules of engagement change or why military tactics differ when the priority is stopping civilian killing instead of destroying an opposing force or occupying a country. Intervening to halt mass atrocities is not even something the military considers when training forces or writing standing operational plans.
No one argues that planning for wars makes them more likely. Yet this seems to be the underlying reason for the military’s allergy to planning for civilian protection. U.S. armed forces should start treating civilian protection missions as seriously as they take wars. It’s only prudent to study mass-atrocity response operations, plan for them and, perhaps most important, conduct exercises with the civilian leaders who would make decisions about potential interventions.