Libya, R2P and a Wilsonian Barack Obama

Last March, we asked in a post here about the normative effects of the Resolution 1973, by which the UN Security Council authorised the use of force in Libya based on the self-attributed ‘responsibility to protect’ (R2P). The war in Libya has claimed many victims and has already reached a point of stagnation. It is time to think about whether that Resolution helped consolidating the idea of R2P or rather constituted a proof of the emptiness of such a norm:

We may legitimately wonder if the humanitarianism of the R2P has ever been the point of the intervention, considering that from its very beginning the declared and undeclared intentions of the main powers were the removal of Col. Gaddafi. In this regard, a recent report by the International Crisis Group calls for a ceasefire and claims that the intervention is more an obstacle than a catalyst for the protection of civilians in Libya:

Their repeatedly proclaimed demand that “Qaddafi must go” systematically confuses two quite different objectives. To insist that, ultimately, he can have no role in the post-Jamahiriya political order is one thing, and almost certainly reflects the opinion of a majority of Libyans as well as of the outside world. But to insist that he must go now, as the precondition for any negotiation, including that of a ceasefire, is to render a ceasefire all but impossible and so to maximise the prospect of continued armed conflict. To insist that he both leave the country and face trial in the International Criminal Court is virtually to ensure that he will stay in Libya to the bitter end and go down fighting.

David Rieff in The National Interest asserts that the right question is not if R2P is valid in this case but whether this could ever be the case, as governments would never be willing to send troops and risk personnel for the altruist goal of saving people’s lives far, far away from home.

Some, on the other hand, consider that the answer to the above poll requires looking at what´s going on inside the home of the most powerful member in the global neighbourhood. In the beginning of 2010, Walter Russel Mead urged Barack Obama in Foreign Policy to be less Jeffersonian and become more activist, idealist… in a word, more Wilsonian. Since his statement back in March 2011, that in which Obama as Commander-in-Chief declared that the United States had a moral responsibility to stop “violence on a horrific scale”, some commentators have identified a shift in the foreign policy of his administration. Jacob Weisberg argued in Slate that, although Obama began as a realist (think of his 2009 Cairo address), he is now becoming an idealist. For Ryan Lizza (The New Yorker), the Arab Spring is transforming Obama’s foreign policy, making him a bit less anti-ideological in his approach to foreign affairs. Interestingly enough, we can identify a striking resemblance between President G.W. Bush and President Obama: the Arab Spring may be for the latter what 9/11 was for the former.

Recent events in D.C. can moderate, accelerate or even reverse this tendency. On the one hand, in order to avoid the congressional control, Obama has been trying to defend the awkward and worrisome idea that “if Americans don´t get hurt, war is no longer war“. In the last days, there has been some discussion about the applicability of the War Powers Resolution (watch the interesting debate between Rep. Dennis Kucinich and former Reagan attorney Robert Turner on Democracy Now), and Obama has been symbolically rebuked by the House of Representatives over the US involvement in Libya. On the other hand, though, the decision to progressively withdraw troops from Afghanistan may be the next step of another type of foreign policy, less confrontational and more idealist and multilateral. As observed in a recent article in The New York Times,

Mr. Obama is benefiting from a confluence of factors — a rising strain of Republican isolationism, the killing of Osama bin Laden and deep concerns about spending and the deficit — which provide unexpected flexibility for dealing with Congress and selling his decision to the nation. He will test whether the post-Sept. 11 politics have changed enough to allow a Democratic president to wind down a war with little or no political peril.

In any case, the current context one more time confirms that the fate and path of international politics very much depends upon what’s going on within national borders, notably when those borders are the ones of the still greatest power on Earth.

Koldo Casla


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