Does America Have a Responsibility to Stop Mass Killings?

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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.

There is, alas, an even bigger problem with the Libya intervention.

Like the panelists, I think there are circumstances in which humanitarian intervention is appropriate, even though I cannot articulate a set of criteria to consistently apply in every situation. The panelists, who are far more interventionist than me, agreed that there are cases when intervening is likely to do more harm than good. So how do we decide when to intervene?

Slaughter has a lot to say on that subject, all of it characteristically thoughtful, but she ultimately believes that the president is the one who should weigh costs and benefits against one another. She thinks people like Barack Obama, advised by people like Hillary Clinton and Slaughter herself, should make the call. Unsurprisingly, neither Slaughter nor anyone else on the panel noted that Congress never declared war in Libya; that President Obama violated the War Powers Resolution in launching the attack; and that by the standard Obama himself articulated as a senator and a presidential candidate, the Constitution didn't permit the actions he took in Libya.


I think it's Congress that should decide whether America has a "responsibility to protect" in a given instance. That is partly because I am a stickler for acting in accordance with the Constitution, a rare quality these days. But it's also because, like the Founders, I believe that presidents would be too inclined to start wars if given the prerogative; that the most legitimate way to decide if it's justified to use American resources when our national security interests aren't at stake is to put the question before the representatives of the people; and because the legislative branch is less likely than the executive to misrepresent facts on the ground in a target country.

Prompted in part by a question from a man instrumental in formulating "responsibility to protect" who worried about its selective use, the panelists were searching for ways to insure that it isn't invoked cynically and opportunistically. One check, Congress, is available if only we act lawfully.

There is, finally, an argument that Carter expressed on the panel: if the American people aren't supportive of a military operation, not just superficially in an opinion poll, but enough that they'll stick with it if body bags start to come home, it shouldn't be waged, because flagging public support can mean certain defeat. Surely Congressional sign-off is one way to guarantee that we enter wars with more support, on average, than if we just let the executive branch act alone.

I don't know what Rand Paul thinks about the Rwandan genocide. But if he were on the panel, rather than being channeled, I am certain he'd assert the prudence and legal necessity of having Congress sign-off on military action, especially when there is no immediate national security threat. If America invokes the "responsibility to protect," it ought to do so constitutionally.
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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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