Does America Have a Responsibility to Stop Mass Killings?

The near consensus is "sometimes." The foreign policy establishment thinks presidents should make the call. But Congress ought to have the final say.

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A man carries a Koran and a Kingdom of Libya flag during a demonstration in Benghazi June 7, 2012 to demand the application of Islamic law, or Sharia law, in Libya. / Reuters

Does the U.S. have a responsibility to intervene abroad to stop egregious human rights abuses? The so-called "responsibility to protect" was the subject of a panel that my colleague Jeffrey Goldberg moderated Sunday in Aspen. He shared the stage with Anne-Marie Slaughter, who served in the Obama Administration as Directory of Policy Planning in the State Department, and is known to advocate for interventions like the one in Libya. In fact, all of the panelists were, broadly speaking, advocates of American intervention, at least in situations like the Rwandan genocide. To spur a more wide-ranging conversation, law professor Steven Carter was briefly assigned to channel the perspective of Sen. Rand Paul, a leading non interventionist.

Notes from the Aspen Ideas Festival -- See full coverage

"The spirit Rand Paul captures goes deeply in American history," he said, adding that in situations like the killings in Darfur, a lot of Americans think it's tragic, but nevertheless feel as though we've got our own problems to address, and that it would be good if someone else did something.

The conversation then turned away from Sen. Paul.

What followed was a survey of the various moral and practical questions interventionism raises. Is it fair to send U.S. troops who volunteered to protect American interests into conflicts like Rwanda where our national security isn't at risk? What measures, short of combat troops on the ground, can be effective? Should authoritarian leaders who've committed atrocities be given amnesty and political asylum if it'll result in fewer lives lost? Is assassination ever legitimate?

Almost all of the panelists - perhaps every last one - supported the American intervention in Libya. Since Slaughter spoke most about that conflict I'll use her commentary to explain why, despite my instinct that we should've done something in Rwanda, I am made uneasy by "responsibility to protect," or at least the way it has sometimes been invoked by the United States.

Slaughter declared the Libya intervention a success, and no one seemed to disagree. As I see it, however, it is far too early to evaluate the effects of NATO's intervention in that country. In the headlines right now, I see that 47 are dead from the latest clashes in Libya; that "Egyptian security forces on Friday seized a large stash weapons, including rockets and automatic machine guns, smuggled into the country from neighboring Libya and allegedly bound for the Gaza Strip;" and that in newly destabilized Mali "Islamist rebels said Sunday they will continue to destroy historic sites in the northern city of Timbuktu before they implement strict Shariah law."

Surely it is at least plausible that continued fighting in Libya, Mali, and other places where Libya's weapons show up - plus the precedent we've set of removing a dictator who previously gave up some of his weapons at our urging - are ultimately going to show the intervention to be a mistake.

But its proponents are pronouncing it a success, far sooner than anyone could possibly know that to be true. And that bolsters my suspicion that the U.S. is institutionally incapable of rigorously evaluating our interventions. Our attention span is measured in news cycles; the attention spans of our leaders are measured in presidential terms; long run consequences get short shrift.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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