President Obama’s stated goal of saving innocent lives in Libya plays a lot better than “regime change.” It feels good to many Americans, despite their reluctance to enter another conflict abroad, and there is wide support internationally for stopping mass atrocities.
If the United States is serious about protecting civilians, though, it needs to address the kinds of conundrums that are emerging in Libya: Does civilian protection inevitably require imposing political change? Do we arm rebels who might not protect civilians themselves? What if NATO bombs kill the very civilians they were supposed to protect?
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.
In each case, we must consider basic questions: Should the interveners prioritize offensive action against the armed or create a defensive perimeter around the vulnerable? What happens if the victims decide to take revenge under the shelter of outside protection? Once interveners stop the killing, must they address the root causes of the violence before they can claim victory?
Such preparation would yield two obvious benefits: First, it will demonstrate that prevention — even where politically and operationally challenging — proves a better option than responding later. Second, ongoing civil-military planning will educate government officials about the risks and complications of intervention. When senior Pentagon leaders publicly voice concerns about a no-fly zone just days before the president authorizes one, the dialogue is too little, too late.
Lack of sustained professional military attention to civilian protection is a global problem. In 2005, the United Nations proclaimed an international “Responsibility to Protect” citizens from systematic slaughter by their governments, but it has done little to make its promise operational. U.N. peacekeeping forces are increasingly directed to “protect civilians under imminent threat of physical violence,” often with little thought to how or even whether this is possible. International organizations, regional bodies and national militaries share this disregard for the practicalities of stopping mass atrocities — yet repeatedly try to do exactly that. Just this month, U.N. forces attacked forces loyal to the former president of Ivory Coast in the name of civilian protection.
There is no secret formula for these missions. Responding to mass killings in Libya looks different than it did in NATO’s Operation Allied Force in Kosovo, or the European Union’s operation in the Democratic Republic of Congo, or the U.S.-led operation in Kurdistan. The U.N. action in Ivory Coast might provide yet another model.
It’s time we recognize that the West conducts military action to prevent civilian slaughter — but refuses to plan systematically for that possibility. Military planners like to say that hope is not a strategy. Neither is denial.
Sarah Sewall, a former Pentagon official, teaches at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and directs the Mass Atrocity Response Operations Project. Retired Marine Gen. Anthony Zinni, chairman of the global defense company BAE Systems Inc., is a former commander of U.S. Central Command.