How the Iraq war undermined the Responsibility to Protect doctrine

How the Iraq war undermined the Responsibility to Protect doctrine

In an interview for Prospect Magazine’s June issue, Emily Thornberry, the British shadow foreign secretary, argued that “the doctrine of Responsibility to Protect” (R2P) is on life support, and that the aftermath of the 2011 military action in Libya badly damaged the concept of R2P. 

Certainly, Libya’s instability and the international community’s failure to protect civilians in the Syrian civil war have undermined those who advocate for humanitarian interventions, including through R2P. Before these two crises, however, the 2003 invasion of Iraq and subsequent years of war and instability crippled R2P just when it gained international approval. 
 
Humanitarian intervention encompasses a broad set of ideas about what countries and the international community should do to support people suffering from violence, natural disaster and other humanitarian concerns. 
 
While R2P falls under that general umbrella, it is a specific doctrine adopted unanimously by the UN in 2005. R2P represents an effort to address the gap between respect for state sovereignty and respect for the most fundamental rights of people — a gap that was especially clear after the genocides and wars in the Balkans and Rwanda in the 1990s. 
 
R2P posits that state sovereignty comes with responsibilities toward the people that a government governs. When a government is unable to fulfill its responsibility to provide basic protections to its people — or when a government perpetrates specific crimes against people under its care — then other states have a responsibility to step in. R2P applies to four very specific situations with particular meanings under international law: “Genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity,” according to the UN. 
 
The George W. Bush administration did not explicitly cite R2P as a justification for the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Bush’s foreign policy team primarily focused on concerns about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction and alleged links to terrorism. However, the administration also argued that Saddam Hussein’s brutal treatment of many Iraqis was one reason to overthrow him, as well as promoting democracy. 
 
It is unlikely that the Bush administration’s humanitarian or democratization arguments in 2003 would meet the standards set out by R2P. Nonetheless, the Iraq war set a precedent for large-scale military action based partly on humanitarian justifications. 
 
The results — brutal war, many thousands of Iraqi deaths, lengthy and costly US military involvement, conditions that fostered the rise of Daesh and general instability — made leaders and publics around the world skeptical of arguments in favor of military interventions on humanitarian grounds. 
 
The Iraq war and its aftermath dealt two significant blows to the R2P doctrine, just as it had potential to gain traction. The first was that the Iraq war provided an easy excuse to those who never liked R2P — especially the concept that sovereignty came with certain responsibilities to a government’s people. 
 
As Iraq’s recent elections suggest, the history of the aftermath of the Iraq war is still being written. However, many world leaders took the lesson to mean that they should avoid large-scale humanitarian interventions, especially those involving military action
Kerry Boyd Anderson
 
Russia in particular has expressed skepticism about R2P, which it sees as a potential threat to its interests and its views of sovereignty. Russia also sees R2P through the lens of US and European attempts to impose Western values on the rest of the world. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has repeatedly pointed to the invasion of Iraq as an example of why Washington should not consider military action in Syria. 

A related problem for R2P is that the doctrine requires UN Security Council approval for military action, and the council’s paralysis is an obstacle. Multiple times, Russia and China have vetoed actions that they see as infringing on sovereignty, even for the sake of stopping the type of extreme, large-scale violence that R2P is designed to halt.

An even more significant consequence was that the Iraq war strongly shaped the foreign policy choices of US President Barack Obama. While he reluctantly intervened in Libya with a multilateral coalition, he decided against significant military involvement in Syria to protect civilians from the Assad regime, even though the Syrian conflict clearly meets the R2P conditions. 
 
Obama’s Ambassador to the UN Samantha Powers was a key advocate of the R2P principle, and some other members of his foreign policy team, including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, advocated for stronger intervention in Syria. Obama overruled them for several reasons, including his views of the lessons of Iraq. 
 
He was clear that the experience of the Iraq war shaped his thinking on Syria, telling The Atlantic magazine in 2016 that “any thoughtful president would hesitate about making a renewed commitment in the exact same region of the world with some of the exact same dynamics and the same probability of an unsatisfactory outcome.” 
 
The hangover from the Iraq war was also a major factor in the 2013 UK vote against taking military action in Syria in response to President Bashar Assad’s use of chemical weapons, which in turn was one reason why Obama backed off from threats after Assad first used them.
 
As Iraq’s recent elections suggest, the history of the aftermath of the Iraq war is still being written. However, many world leaders took the lesson to mean that they should avoid large-scale humanitarian interventions, especially those involving military action. 
 
While clearly it is important to learn the many lessons of the ill-conceived 2003 Bush decisions on Iraq, the Iraq war’s role in undermining the primary doctrine available for interventions to stop genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity adds to the other tragic consequences of the conflict.
 
  • Kerry Boyd Anderson is a writer and political risk consultant with more than 14 years’ experience as a professional analyst of international security issues and Middle East political and business risk. Twitter: @KBAresearch
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