Needed: An International Strategy in Iraq

I’ve been asked by Jim Wallis and the team at Sojourners for my thoughts on how to respond to the current humanitarian and security crisis in Iraq.

I believe the United States should work through the United Nations to develop a coherent humanitarian, political and military strategy for addressing the needs of persecuted minority communities and countering the security threat posed by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, ISIS.

Unilateral U.S. military action is unsustainable and unwise over the long run. If further security measures are needed to protect civilians from ISIS, they should be multilateral, not unilateral.

Read my comments here, posted in today’s God’s Politics blog.

Red Lines in Syria

If the Assad regime has used chemical weapons and crossed the red line President Obama warned against, urgent international action is needed. This does not mean the United States should take military action. Instead Washington should work through the United Nations to confirm the evidence and if necessary mobilize diplomatic action against those responsible.

The first task is to get UN inspectors into Syria to verify if chemical weapons have been used, and by whom. The UN Secretary General has assembled a team of experts, but the Assad regime so far has refused the demand for unrestricted access and has denied them entry. The U.S. should support efforts to negotiate terms of reference for the inspection team so that it can enter the country and begin collecting evidence.

It is important to acknowledge that the information available so far is very uneven and limited. No soil samples are available from a physical site. Most of the evidence reportedly comes from tissue and blood samples that have been transmitted by multiple handlers. The ‘chain of custody’ of the detected elements and the identities of those responsible remain unclear.

It is not clear who may have used chemical weapons. Initially the Assad regime claimed that the rebels were responsible for the injuries and deaths that were reported last month. The rebels claim the government is responsible. The amounts of sarin and other toxic agents reportedly used were quite small. Some analysts have suggested that the use of chemical weapons shells may have been inadvertent. These and other questions need to be clarified before any action can be taken.

If the evidence shows that the Syrian government has indeed used these weapons, the Obama administration should work with key allies and members of Security Council to apply pressure on the Assad regime. The goal should be to take diplomatic steps that could lead to the adoption of targeted Security Council sanctions directed at those responsible for the command and control of chemical weapons systems. Hopefully Russia and China could be persuaded to support such measures. This would be a major diplomatic setback for Assad and would isolate and weaken his regime. None of this will be possible without firm evidence of actual chemical weapons use by government forces.

No justification exists for even considering military action. Crossing that dangerous red line would have severe negative consequences. It could involve U.S. forces in another Middle East conflict and perhaps drag us into the deadly Syrian civil war, worsening an already grave security crisis in the region. Bombing strikes would not be sufficient to neutralize Syria’s vast arsenal of chemical weapons, and they could cause explosions that would release the very deadly toxins we seek to contain. The use of force would squander any opportunity to win Russian and Chinese support for UN action and would hand the Assad regime a lifeline of continued diplomatic support.

Multilateral action through the UN offers the best path for determining if the regime has used chemical weapons and if so for mobilizing international pressure against those responsible.

Protective Military Interventionism: The Pros and Cons

With the Qaddafi regime collapsing, now is an appropriate time to begin assessing the implications of the NATO-led military mission, and of the broader policy of multilateral protective interventionism.

I was an early supporter of the no-fly zone, which morphed into a campaign of air support for the Libyan rebels. It was unusual for me to support armed action, since I have been an active opponent of U.S. military interventionism for decades, from Vietnam and Central America to Iraq and Afghanistan. As a peace activist and scholar I abhor war and believe that nonviolent solutions are available for resolving conflicts. But I felt that multilateral military action in Libya was warranted because of the imminent threat of massacres in Benghazi and other threatened cities back in March.

In making the case for military intervention, President Obama and other Western officials invoked the principle of the ‘responsibility to protect’ (R2P). When governments are unable to protect their citizens, or are actively terrorizing their own people and committing mass murder, the international community has a responsibility to step in and help those who are victimized. This principle was endorsed by world leaders at the UN World Summit in 2005 and by a resolution of the UN Security Council in 2006. Libya is the first example of a formal attempt to implement the principle through multilateral military intervention.

The intervention was legal under international law because it had the backing of the UN Security Council. It also had regional political legitimacy as the Arab League voted in March for the UN to impose a no-fly zone and create “safe zones” in Libya, declaring that the Qaddafi regime had lost its right to sovereignty because of its attacks against civilians. The Security Council responded to the Arab League request by adopting Resolution 1973, which authorized the multilateral military mission, condemning the Qaddafi regime’s “widespread and systematic attacks” against civilians. In June the International Criminal Court issued arrest warrants against Qaddafi and his sons for crimes against humanity in the massacre of innocent civilians.

The implications of these developments for future policy are uncertain.  It was encouraging to see the international community demonstrate such quick and forceful resolve in responding to government abuse against its own people. Whether this action will serve as a model for other interventions against brutal regimes is uncertain. Some are asking if the Arab League and NATO should take action to save the people of Syria from the murderous actions of the Assad regime. That seems unlikely in the near term, but the apparent success of intervention in Libya may give pause to tyrants who claim the right to massacre their own citizens with impunity. The NATO-led action in Libya may signal a more active international commitment to opposing genocide and mass murder.

On the other hand, many questions are raised by the Libya experience. Protective intervention is indeed a legitimate principle of human security, but the use of military force should be a last resort, not the primary or only means of intervention. The success in Libya may create a false impression of the efficacy of military force and prompt some to argue for more frequent military interventions around the world. This could divert attention from nonmilitary tools of policy—including sanctions and diplomacy—that can help to prevent armed conflict and human rights abuse.

Troubling legal and constitutional questions are raised by the Obama administration’s refusal to seek congressional authorization for the use of force.  This reinforces the claim of executive war making privilege, weakens legislative authority, and increases the danger of future abuses of power.

The Libya intervention also brings into question NATO’s role as the instrument for multilateral intervention in regions beyond Europe. If protective intervention is to become global policy, an appropriate international legal framework needs to be created for this purpose. A more diverse security capability needs to be developed, one that is structured according to human security principles, as Mary Kaldor has advocated, and that is oriented toward policing rather than military action, as Robert Johansen has argued.  

These questions deserve debate and discussion in the coming months. Your comments are welcome.

Time for a diplomatic strategy in Libya

It is obvious by now that the rebels cannot defeat Gaddafi’s forces. Replacing the dictatorship with a more representative government remains the best strategy for protecting civilians and advancing democracy, but that goal will not be achieved by a ragtag rebellion and limited international air support.

Coalition air strikes have had some success so far in preventing civilian massacres and providing cover for resistance forces. But the operations themselves have taken Libyan lives, and supporting the insurgents has become more difficult as Gaddafi’s defenders have shed uniforms and military vehicles. The further utility of military force is questionable.

The U.S. and NATO should pursue diplomatic options. Two of Gaddafi’s sons recently proposed a negotiated transition in which their father steps down in favor of a constitutional democracy. Most observers dismissed the offer, but it may provide an opening that could be exploited by creative diplomacy. An offer to suspend NATO-led air operations could provide powerful leverage for negotiation to gain real concessions. Continue reading “Time for a diplomatic strategy in Libya”

Two cheers for intervention in Libya

I’ve been going through a bit of an identity crisis over what to say about the intervention in Libya. I abhor war and have spent most of my life trying to stop US military interventions, from Vietnam to Afghanistan. I never favor militarist solutions.

Yet I find the current operation partially justified. Already it has saved many civilian lives. As Juan Cole notes, Gaddafi’s tanks and planes killed thousands of Libyans in the weeks before the intervention, and they were poised to slaughter many more before they were stopped last week. The international air strikes have halted the regime’s advances and enabled the opposition to recapture lost ground.

The intervention is supported by the Libyan liberation movement and has multilateral authority and participation, with backing from the Arab League and UN Security Council. It is an unprecedented attempt by the international community to exercise the ‘responsibility to protect.’  So far the use of force has been targeted and has not resulted in many civilian casualties. Continue reading “Two cheers for intervention in Libya”

Save Libyan lives, speed Gaddafi’s departure

The political and diplomatic prospects for imposing a no-fly zone over Libya advanced significantly yesterday (March 2). The Arab League, meeting in Cairo, said it will consider the possibility of imposing such a zone and will discuss the matter with members of the African Union.

This is very good news for the prospects of united international action against Gaddafi. It follows the nonbinding resolution adopted unanimously by the U.S. Senate on Tuesday (March 1) urging the UN Security Council to impose the no-fly zone. Russia, China, and other Security Council members have been reluctant until now, but if the Arab League and African Union approve, there would be little justification for further reluctance. The pieces are falling into place for establishing the necessary legal authority and political backing for decisive multilateral action to save Libyan lives and speed Gaddafi’s departure.

The Obama administration should mount a full-court diplomatic press, working directly with the Arab League, the African Union, and the UN Security Council, to prepare a resolution giving UN authorization for the no-fly zone. If Gaddafi continues to terrorize and bomb his population as he has done in recent days, the Security Council should authorize immediate action to establish the no-fly zone. The Pentagon should work with Arab and African partners along with NATO allies to facilitate preparations for the no-fly mission and ensure that if action becomes necessary it is a genuine multilateral operation in which Arab and African states participate fully. This will ensure united international support for the Libyan people and hopefully set a precedent for effective multilateral action to protect civilians from murderous dictators.