The Corner

R2P: Tail or Dog?

Following up on my earlier Libya post, it’s interesting to have a look at the foreign-policy chapter of Obama’s book, The Audacity of Hope, in light of Libya. While he’s careful to cover all the bases and avoid getting trapped in obviously unpopular positions, the chapter as a whole gives pretty clear evidence of Obama’s commitment, not only to Libya-type actions, but to the broader agenda of aid projects and new international legal norms held dear by supporters of responsibility to protect (R2P).

Some of those folks worry that because Libya is dragging on and has exceeded its formal U.N. mandate, it will actually hurt the prospects for future R2P interventions. I hope they’re right, but it seems to me that the opposite is more likely the case. Should Obama be reelected, he will be freer to launch more such interventions.

For the foreseeable future, these sorts of actions are going to blend conventional claims of national interest with the new international norms. Sometimes it’s tough to see which is the tail and which is the dog. You can view Libya as a humanitarian fig-leaf for an anti-Qaddafi action, or as an anti-Qaddafi rationalization for a broader effort to generate new transnational norms. We may have gone beyond the formal U.N. mandate of protecting civilians, but we’ve also done it in a ridiculously inefficient way if our real goal all along was regime change.

In any case, knowing not only who Obama’s advisers are but what Obama himself has written makes a convincing case that Obama is doing his best to advance R2P as best he can in a world of conflicting pressures.


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