The “Responsibility to Protect” (R2P) in Iraq Shouldn’t Just Be About Military Intervention

The “Responsibility to Protect” (R2P) in Iraq Shouldn’t Just Be About Military Intervention

Jeong Lee

The resumption of limited military campaigns in Iraq has raised concerns that well-intentioned efforts to avert catastrophic military defeats and a humanitarian crisis in the country may lead to mission creep, or at best, will not likely yield desired outcomes envisioned by the Obama Administration.

According to the United Nations report to the Secretary General, the underlying principle behind R2P or the Responsibility to Protect is that “When a State…‘manifestly fail[s]’ to protect its population from the four specified crimes and violations,” other states would “take collective action in a ‘timely and decisive manner’ through the Security Council and in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations.” Nonetheless, one problem with R2P which may hamper effective responses could be that the definition and the scope of responses in a “timely and decisive manner” may vary among participating states due to different expectations and domestic constraints within participating states.  Furthermore, given that the “confusion about the relationship between R2P and non-consensual military intervention” can lead to dangerous mission creep that often violates the requisite impartiality, the indigenous population may perceive such missions “as a ‘Trojan horse’ that legitimizes great power interference in the affairs of the weak.”

If history offers any guide, the Clinton Administration’s tragic experience in Somalia in 1993 demonstrates that what began as a well-intentioned humanitarian endeavor to feed the hungry quickly degenerated into a manhunt bereft of legitimacy. In hindsight, according to former Ambassador John Hirsch, one major reason for the mission creep in Somalia wherein a contingent of the Delta Force commandos and Rangers were called upon to hunt down the recalcitrant Somali warlord Muhammad Farrah Aideed had been that the policymakers and military officials alike “wildly over-estimated the effectiveness of first world military capacities in a third world context…[even though] they completely underestimated the extent of popular support for  Aideed.” But even more important, the United States was forced to withdraw from Somalia because it had violated neutrality requisite in R2P missions.

The United States could find itself mired in yet another inextricable quagmire should it primarily rely on its military to execute R2P. As former Marine and State Department official, Matthew Hoh, recently argued in his recent interview with Salon, “If our troops go into Iraq they will be picking winners and losers in a society they do not understand and in a war that is amazingly complex.” Retired Army Colonel and Boston University historian Andrew Bacevich takes Hoh’s assertion further when he avers in his Los Angeles Times op-ed that to “imagine at this late date that the United States possesses the capacity to reverse this sad situation is surely a delusion.”

As if to bear out Hoh and Bacevich’s arguments, the United States is already ratcheting up its military involvement in Iraq in the aftermath of the gruesome beheading of the freelance journalist James Foley last week. As the New York Times reports, President Obama has authorized aerial surveillance over Syrian air space as a step towards “strik[ing]…ISIS near the largely erased border between those two nations.” In addition, the US Delta Force operators, in tandem with their British SAS counterparts, have formed hunter killer teams known as Task Force Black to “cut the head off the snake” that is ISIS.

For the United States, there are better alternatives to military intervention which may help to sustain a successful R2P mission. Such solutions may require a combination of deft diplomacy in an effort to form an international consensus against ISIS in tandem with a national consensus at home to ensure American public support for the limited US military involvement in Iraq. As the New America Foundation fellow Brian Fishman argues in his latest commentary, without a coherent strategy and absent “a real national consensus,” there may not be a “viable mechanism to defeat ISIS.” Despite strident calls for a renewed full-scale war against the Islamic extremist group by retired Marine General John R. Allen and former Ambassador James F. Jeffrey, without domestic and international support, there may be no feasible military solutions against the radical jihadist group.

Furthermore, rather than implement short-term solutions against ISIS, we must address the underlying root causes of militant radicalism in the Middle East. It is worth remembering that Foley’s executioner, Abdel Majed Abdel Bary, had been a London-based rapper whose father had been a close associate of the current al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri. According to the Daily Beast, given that his father is now in an American prison, “the younger Abdel Bary’s upbringing may have given him a special grudge.” Simply put, to root out the ISIS threat, we should address the pervasive racial and religious inequality in the Western world.Ultimately, given the limits of its hard and soft power, the United States alone cannot go at it alone to protect the Iraqi people from ISIS. For this reason, R2P should not primarily be a military endeavor, but should instead successfully incorporate various elements such as diplomacy, domestic consensus, humanitarian assistance from various NGOs, and indigenous people’s right to self-determination. One reason for this is that our military capabilities are seriously limited for such missions.  But most importantly, should we conflate humanitarian missions with neutralizing existing threats, we run the risk of being seen as a meddlesome occupier.

One of my graduate school classmates had commanded infantry units in Iraq. When I met up with him recently, my classmate asked rhetorically, “Why was it that it was Lt. So-and-so [referring to himself] and not the State Department, who had to pick up the pieces and rebuild Iraq?”

His point was that we cannot fight a war when there are discrepancies between the civilian strategic goals and expectations and the finite military capabilities to meet those goals.

Jeong Lee is a freelance writer and an MA candidate in International Security Studies Program at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver. His writings on U.S. defense policy issues and inter-Korean affairs have appeared on various online publications.

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