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The Obama Doctrine: Humanitarian Imperialism

As James Joyner noted earlier today, there’s some disagreement among pundits over whether or not President Obama articulated a coherent foreign policy doctrine during his speech about the intervention in Libya last night. Tagegan Goddard wraps up some of the assessments in the media:

First Read: “This, as we’ve said before, is the Obama Doctrine: The U.S. will take military action to avert a humanitarian crisis if its scope is limited and if it has the backing of the world community.”

The Fix: “Obama pushed back on the notion that the United States should police the world, but also left the door open to getting involved when American interests — or even values (a much lower standard) — are at stake. The key to Obama’s remarks, though, was the idea that the United States should act in concert with allies.”

Mark Thompson: “This is less a repudiation of Powell than a shift in emphasis, a push toward multilateralism and a willingness to hand off command (and responsibility) to others. Obama, he made clear Monday night, is willing to invest less in world hot spots in exchange for assuming a lesser risk.”

Before deciding if these assessments are correct, it pays to take a look (again) at the key section of the President’s speech last night where he described what some are saying his new foreign policy doctrine:

There will be times, though, when our safety is not directly threatened, but our interests and our values are.  Sometimes, the course of history poses challenges that threaten our common humanity and our common security — responding to natural disasters, for example; or preventing genocide and keeping the peace; ensuring regional security, and maintaining the flow of commerce.  These may not be America’s problems alone, but they are important to us.  They’re problems worth solving.  And in these circumstances, we know that the United States, as the world’s most powerful nation, will often be called upon to help.

In such cases, we should not be afraid to act — but the burden of action should not be America’s alone.  As we have in Libya, our task is instead to mobilize the international community for collective action.  Because contrary to the claims of some, American leadership is not simply a matter of going it alone and bearing all of the burden ourselves.  Real leadership creates the conditions and coalitions for others to step up as well; to work with allies and partners so that they bear their share of the burden and pay their share of the costs; and to see that the principles of justice and human dignity are upheld by all.

This isn’t a new idea on Obama’s part, it’s a variation on the so-called “Responsibility To Protect Doctrine,” which has been brewing in the corridors of the United Nations for a few years now:

This doctrine is known as the “responsibility to protect” (R2P for short) and was endorsed by the United Nations in 2005. It mandates that the “international community” is morally obliged to defend people who are in danger of massive human-rights violations. It’s rooted in Western guilt over the failure to prevent genocide in Rwanda. R2P is the moral underpinning of the war in Libya, and it’s the reason why people such as Paul Martin, Roméo Dallaire, Mr. Rae and Mr. Axworthy have been so amazingly eager for us to rush into battle.

So have Ms. Power and her sister warriors Hillary Clinton, the U.S. Secretary of State, and Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the UN. Together, these three convinced Mr. Obama of the urgent moral case for war in Libya. Ms. Power is the author of the enormously influential book A Problem from Hell, about Washington’s failure to prevent genocide in the 20th century. Her counterpart in France is the glamorous philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy, who flew to Benghazi, met the rebels, and persuaded French President Nicolas Sarkozy (who badly needs a boost in the polls) to back them.

In other words, the war in Libya is a creation of the liberal intellectuals – just as the war in Iraq was a creation of the neo-conservatives. Many of the liberal intellectuals who vigorously opposed the Iraq war have just as vigorously been advocating intervention in Libya. Both groups are serenely convinced of their own moral rightness. Yet, the delusions of the R2P crowd aren’t all that different from the delusions of the neo-cons, who thought they could march into Iraq, decapitate the dictator, and help the cheering throngs embrace democracy. Has the past decade taught these people nothing?

As with the neo-cons, though, the R2pers  use their own sense of moral superiority and self-righteousness to hide a bitter reality; that their doctrine is far from being the grand paean to universal human rights that they like to pretend that it is. For one thing, it’s fairly clear that not every act of genocide will be addressed by the international community. The world would likely be silent if China were to launch a repeat of Tiananmen Square, for example, or if Russia were to launch another war against the Chenchen rebels. Closer to home, the odds of the international community ever intervening in a nation like Yemen, Baharain, Syria, Iran, or Saudi Arabia are slim to none. And forget about Europeans or Americans being at all eager to expend blood and treasure putting down a repressive government in some forgettable African country. Libya was picked mostly because it was an easy target, and because Muammar Gaddafi has no real friends left in the world, a fact brought home by the fact that neither Russia nor China did anything to stop UNSCR 1973.  Everyone dislikes Gaddafi, which, combined with the geography of Libya itself, makes him an easy target. The “Responsibility To Protect” Doctrine, therefore, seems more like an excuse for Europeans and Americans on the left to support intervention not because it protects the vital interests of the nations they live in, but because it makes them feel good.

There’s another similarity between the R2P crowd and the neo-cons, of course. In both cases, there is an absolute sense of certainty that causes people to ignore the facts on the ground. For the neo-cons, the certainty that we’d be greeted as liberators by the people of Iraq and Afghanistan caused them to discount the necessity for any kind of post-war planning, and to believe that merely introducing “democratic” institutions into nations that had never known democracy would lead to an immediate transformation that took decades, if not centuries, in the West. For the R2P’ers, it’s absolutely certainty that merely being guided by the desire to “help” people is sufficient to accomplish their goals, meaning that there’s no need to worry about the fact that the rebels you’re protecting are allied with a terrorist group, or that the conflict your’re intervening in may be more tribal than political. Finally, for both the neo-con and the R2Per there is the overwhelming certainty that they are better judge’s of the future of a nation than the people who actually live there.

This kind of smug moralism usually leads to disaster when it runs headlong into reality, but it’s also a sign that, hypocrisy notwithstanding, the “Responsibility To Protect” Doctrine marks a significant shift in course:

We have entered a new age – the age of humanitarian imperialism. Humanitarian imperialists are besotted with fantasies of the West’s inherent goodness. As American writer David Rieff puts it, they have promised that, from now on, all wars will “noble wars of altruism.” To them, the facts on the ground don’t matter much. What really matters is their good intentions.

And we all know the ultimate destination of a road paved with good intentions.

 

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About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May, 2010 and also writes at Below The Beltway. Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. george says:

    Same action, different rhetoric – which is for the most part the only difference between Democrats and Republicans.

    In fact, in this case I’m not even sure the rhetoric has changed much … when was the last time someone claimed to go to war for anything other than humanitarian reasons?

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  2. Hey Norm says:

    “…Everyone dislikes Gaddafi…”
    Well, except for the Bush administration and McCain and Lieberman.

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  3. michael reynolds says:

    As with the neo-cons, though, the R2pers use their own sense of moral superiority and self-righteousness to hide a bitter reality; that their doctrine is far from being the grand paean to universal human rights that they like to pretend that it is. For one thing, it’s fairly clear that not every act of genocide will be addressed by the international community. The world would likely be silent if China were to launch a repeat of Tiananmen Square, for example, or if Russia were to launch another war against the Chenchen rebels.

    Which is exactly what Obama said last night. That we would not be able or willing to intervene in every case. That there would be practical limits.

    Which leaves you not so much discovering a flaw as making the sophomoric argument that if we cannot save everyone we should not attempt to save anyone. Sort of as if the rescue ships approaching the sunken Titanic had decided to turn around because it wouldn’t be fair to save just a few.

    For the R2P’ers, it’s absolutely certainty that merely being guided by the desire to “help” people is sufficient to accomplish their goals, meaning that there’s no need to worry about the fact that the rebels you’re protecting are allied with a terrorist group, or that the conflict your’re intervening in may be more tribal than political. Finally, for both the neo-con and the R2Per there is the overwhelming certainty that they are better judge’s of the future of a nation than the people who actually live there.

    Of course none of that is true. No one thinks a desire to help is the same as ability to help. Are you high? Who ever said that or anything like it?

    And we do NOT have evidence that the people we’re helping are allied with terrorists, despite your hyperventilation and echo-chamber credulity.

    As for thinking we’re better able to judge than the locals. Yeah, Dog, I mean, who’s to say the Nazis weren’t right about the Jews or the Turks about the Armenians or the Kmer Rouge about, well, everyone? Smugness, that’s what it is.

    This is just a silly content-free, thought-free rant. Up to your usual standards, Doug, which on this issue, is not a compliment.

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  4. michael reynolds says:

    Sorry, Dog = Doug and no it was not in any way deliberate.

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  5. Michael,

    Are you aware of the coverage the links between al Qaeda and some elements within the Libyan rebellion has gotten in the British press? Or that the US Admiral presently serving as SACEUR acknowledged those links in testimony yesterday before Congress?

    As for the rest of your point, our President has somehow managed to lay out a doctrine clothed in a false morality that justifies intervening in the internal affairs of a country that is no threat to us for no good reason. That’s hardly something to be proud of.

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  6. Tsar Nicholas says:

    Well, let’s not be so naive as to think Obama himself has any clue what his war doctrine is or even should be. The only connection Obama has with the “Obama doctrine” is moving his lips as the text of it rolls by on the teleprompter.

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  7. ponce says:

    Doug,

    As a recent convert to the Obama Doctrine, let me just say it doesn’t pay to think too much about it.

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  8. michael reynolds says:

    I’m aware of articles with extremely limited sourcing by the Telegraph, if I recall, and some idiocy from a Bush admin wash-out who now works for Heritage.

    What you describe as “links,” implying a connection with an organized Al Qaeda (which one?) and the rebels are described by the intelligence as “flickers.” They also describe “flickers” of Hezbollah. Which leaves you now to theorize a “link” between extreme Sunni Al Qaeda and extreme Shia Hezbollah.

    In other words, what we have so far is the likelihood that some of the rebel fighters have also in the past fought against our interests. Which — to a much greater degree — would describe Saudi Arabia and most of our Middle East allies.

    In other words: nice try.

    false morality

    Is it false to say that we oppose massacres of civilians? Or is it false to oppose massacres of civilians? Maybe you could explain how either is “False.”

    Doug, you’ve been off-base since Day One when you were telling us the Obama administration was stupid for thinking they could pass a UNSC resolution they had already engineered.

    And you’ve been wrong on everything since. The reason you’re wrong is obvious: you’re putting ego and ideology ahead of analysis. You need this intervention to fail to prove you right and because the alternative — a strong, competent liberal president — terrifies you politically.

    But you aren’t making a rational case, you’re giving vent to frustration.

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  9. tom p says:

    We are all Georgians (ooops, my bad,) Libyans now

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  10. mantis says:

    As for the rest of your point, our President has somehow managed to lay out a doctrine clothed in a false morality that justifies intervening in the internal affairs of a country that is no threat to us for no good reason.

    Really, Doug? For no good reason? Ah libertarians. Gotta love em. Preventing a civilian massacre is not a good reason, unless the libertarian speaking is one of those civilians.

    Don’t get me wrong; I’m quite critical of the inconsistency here. Seems to me there’s just as much reason, using the president’s own justifications, to intervene in the Congo as there is in Libya. More, in fact.

    And I’m not too optimistic about the outcome, or length of time needed to arrive at one, in Libya. Having Bill Kristol agree with you is the kiss of death. But stopping a massacre is still a good reason.

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  11. Fog says:

    Just as Reagan’s “Mister Gorbachev, tear down this wall” speech was seen as heralding the collapse of the Soviet Union, so will Obama’s Cairo speech be seen as having heralded the “Arab Spring.”
    Keep this in mind when you read posts concerning the Obama Doctrine.

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  12. Ignacio says:

    Liberalism meets foreign policy? :-)

    Very nice title. There must be an oxymoron in it.

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  13. Drew says:

    Obama’s “Black Sheep” past 30 days: “well we can go with this, or we can go with that, we can go with this or we can go with that…”

    All we needed last night was the hamsters…..

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  14. michael reynolds says:

    Drew needs things very simple. Concrete. Thick, thick concrete.

    So very thick.

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  15. Drew, check out Fatboy Slim’s “Weapon of Choice” video on Youtube with Christopher Walken. That’s the source and much, much better than the hamsters. Christopher Walken can dance and fly, just like Obama!

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  16. Wayne says:

    In the Titanic example, Obama is saying if it a small boat where we can easily save the people then we will save them. Supposedly we would do so because we are morally obliged to do so.

    If it is a large ship like the Titanic then we won’t act at all because it would take too much effort. We will pick and choose based on effort needed on wither we are morally obliged to act.

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  17. michael reynolds says:

    Wayne:

    No, he’s saying we’ll send in boats when have a chance of effecting rescue without getting the rescuers themselves killed. That would be the analogy. Otherwise known as prudence.

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  18. Fog says:

    Yes, Wayne. If there is a civil war in China, we will not intervene.
    And I see no problem with that.

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  19. Wayne says:

    So in other words we are “morally obliged” as long as the other guy is small enough.

    What is it called when a big guy will only pick on the little guys that poses little danger to him?

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  20. mantis says:

    What is it called when a big guy will only pick on the little guys that poses little danger to him?

    You mean like Gaddafi?

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  21. michael reynolds says:

    Wayne:

    This isn’t the playground or a TV show. It’s reality.

    Let’s put you in this position, Wayne. You see a guy getting beat up. If he’s getting beat up by one unarmed dude maybe you step in, right?

    How about if he’s being beaten by an entire heavily-armed motorcycle gang? Prudence dictates you avoid getting yourself killed. You’re not going to save the victim, you’re just going to double the number of victims.

    I think we’ll eventually evolve the global equivalent of cops. It’s an interconnected world and we need cops, just like we do in any individual country or city. But we’re at a transitional point here where the only person really capable of playing sheriff is the Sheriff America. There are crimes being committed everywhere and we don’t exactly have a badge, and we don’t have unlimited forces.

    So yes, we pick and choose. Where we think it’s do-able as well as important, in we go.

    Where we think it’s either less important or overly-difficult, we stay out.

    Why is any of that even controversial? It’s simply rational.

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  22. sherlock says:

    A “paean” is a hymn of thanksgiving. A “panacea” is a cure-all. I think you meant the latter.

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  23. Elia Isquire says:
  24. Wayne says:

    Re “You see a guy getting beat up. If he’s getting beat up by one unarmed dude maybe you step in, right?”

    If it is one on one and both people initiated the fight, not likely. In some other situation yes. Going against some of the other countries wouldn’t be going against overwhelming odds. Regardless I wouldn’t jump in only after seeing the assailant is some old broken down person then claim I jump in because I was my “morally obliged” to do so.

    There is a big difference between not jumping in against overwhelming odds, which I have done and not jumping in because the opponent may not be such a pushover. You definitely shouldn’t be claiming any high morality for jumping in against a weak opponent while refusing to go against a stronger one.

    FYI I agree we should pick and choose. However it should be decided on more than “is our opponent weak”. Why is Libya important to the U.S. ? The humanitarian excuse is just that an excuse.

    The reason it is important is because we should have some sort of coherent foreign policies. People and countries should know where we stand. There is a big difference between being strong and forthright than being a bully.

    It is simply rational if you are a bully and a chicken-shit. However if you are a person\country who believe you should stand for something then you should stand for it consistently even when it is not easy to do so.

    Once again, with Libya if there are good reasons for interfering then please state them. I would have little issue backing it if someone would do so. However don’t blow smoke up my backside and expect me to buy off on it. “Morally obliged” give me a break.

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  25. [...] is the problem with Obama’s doctrine of humanitarian imperialism, once you’ve said that a human rights “crisis” is sufficient justification for [...]

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  26. [...] The Obama Doctrine: Humanitarian Imperialism (outsidethebeltway.com) [...]

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