Don't Call This a Humanitarian Intervention

Whether you support or disapprove of the coming strike on Syria, don't say it's about saving civilians. Please.

In its failed bid to convince Parliament to support airstrikes against Syria, the British government issued a statement on Thursday, Aug. 29, outlining its legal justification for military action. In doing so, it claimed that its position is consistent with an emerging international norm of "humanitarian intervention." Indeed such a norm, while not yet codified in international law, has begun to take shape in recent decades, evidenced in both international documents and the practice and rhetoric of governments. Britain's legal position, however, inadequately reflects these international understandings about the "responsibility to protect." Although it's now largely moot, if the British position had been authorized by Parliament, it would have risked dangerously undercutting this emerging and still fragile norm, while simultaneously threatening the U.N. Charter regime. It is thus noteworthy that U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry chose not to mention "humanitarian intervention" in his remarks on Friday, focusing instead on the need to enforce a taboo against chemical weapons. This makes sense, since the military campaign being proposed would not meet the standards by which humanitarian interventions are judged.

The "responsibility to protect" (R2P) doctrine encompasses far more than an imperative toward military intervention, but it does also allow the use of armed force to protect civilians (humanitarian intervention). This new "norm," designed to be used in extreme cases, rests on six principles. Of these, Britain invoked only three, and war planners on both sides of the Atlantic have made a solid case only for two.

The first is "just cause." As the British government stated and many observers have reiterated of late, Syria is in a state of extreme humanitarian distress requiring immediate relief. There is strong evidence in favor of this argument. By any estimate, the civilian death toll at the hands of Bashar al-Assad's regime is staggering, and millions have been displaced. The use of gas against civilians is seen by many to breach an atrocity threshold -- killing hundreds of people (more than 1,400, according to U.S. government evidence). Even without chemical weapons, a strong case could be and has been made for doing something to stop the slaughter. But R2P also says intervention should be a "last resort" -- Britain's second stated principle -- after diplomatic avenues are exhausted. Again, Western powers could make a strong case that this criterion has been met in the case of Syria.

The British government also emphasized that a humanitarian intervention must use means "necessary and proportionate" to humanitarian aims. Here its position is trickier. Of course states are expected to conduct all wars in accordance with the humanitarian principles of necessity, proportionality, and discrimination. They are also expected to observe limits on the means and methods of combat. Would the limited strikes Western powers currently envision meet this standard? It's not at all clear. In fact, the British NGO has issued a letter to Prime Minister David Cameron raising concerns over whether use of explosives in densely populated areas could conceivably be understood as a proportional response consistent with humanitarian aims, given their widespread and predictable impact on civilians.

This brings us to the three R2P principles British lawyers are forgetting -- and the reasons, perhaps, that the United States has not invoked R2P in its justification for strikes. One is that a truly humanitarian intervention must have "right intention" -- it must be designed for the express purpose of protecting civilians from predation at the hands of their government. But it is very clear that the military campaign envisioned is not really about protecting civilians from Assad or an ongoing civil war. Instead, as Kerry reiterated today, the goal is to enforce a weapons norm through a punitive strike. While this may well be a laudable goal in itself and may indeed do some good in reinforcing an important global norm, there is no evidence to suggest that it will have an immediate and beneficial humanitarian effect -- indeed much to the contrary.

Enter another important principle: that any intervention undertaken to protect civilians have a "reasonable likelihood of success" and avoid making things worse. Even if a Western strike were the most effective way possible to enforce the chemical weapons taboo -- and this itself is debated -- it is far less clear that such a strike would have a reasonable likelihood of success when it comes to the wider goal of protecting civilians. In fact, much data and analysis suggests the contrary. A recent study has found that intervening on behalf of rebels increases the number of civilians who are killed. While international relations professor Jon Western of Mount Holyoke College rightly points out that it depends on the type of intervention, successful missions have typically included robust mandates, ambitious goals, a willingness to stay the course, and significant resources from the international community subsequent to the invasion. Many involved regime change. In other words, the kind of intervention most likely to actually protect civilians is the polar opposite of the one now being proposed.

Even if all these criteria were met -- even if Cameron had been defending a well-deserved, last-ditch military campaign for the right reasons using appropriate means and with the best possible plan to sustainably mitigate rather than increase civilian bloodshed -- it would still violate the R2P doctrine if it included the right to act unilaterally. Precisely because the humanitarian intervention norm runs afoul of the U.N. Charter and because fears are so great that it could be used as a smoke screen for wars of aggression, international support for this emerging norm has always been predicated on the idea that it would be used only where a broad multilateral consensus existed that it is the right thing to do.

Consider state practice since 1990. The "good wars" perceived by the international community to have been legitimate cases of humanitarian intervention include operations in Somalia to protect food shipments, northern Iraq to protect Kurdish refugees from attack, Bosnia and Kosovo to end ethnic cleansing, and Libya to forestall a devastating siege. In each case, these efforts were undertaken by a wide coalition of governments deeply invested in the cause. Now consider cases where a single government asserted the right to act unilaterally for humanitarian reasons. When the Russian military entered Georgia in 2008, it claimed it was doing so to protect civilians. When the United States invaded Iraq in 2003 to "liberate its people from a tyrant," the vast majority of states opposed this action as an ill-conceived violation of the U.N. Charter. Neither diplomats at the time nor analysts of political history include these incursions among the canon of legitimate humanitarian interventions. Whatever complex mixture of motives underlay these wars (and whatever mixture underlies "bona fide" interventions like Kosovo and Libya), it is multilateralism that constitutes a perception that a military intervention is legitimately humanitarian.

This importance of collective action is reflected in the codified R2P principles as well. Although lacking the status of treaty law, the R2P doctrine has been laid out in several international documents. In each one, it states the importance of seeking prior U.N. Security Council authorization for action, subsequently calling emergency sessions of the General Assembly, and coordinating emergency operations through regional organizations on a multilateral basis. The 2005 World Summit Outcome document referred to governments' collective "responsibility" to prevent atrocity. These documents do not confer a right upon individual states to decide for themselves. This explains why, despite a willingness to act without a Security Council authorization, the United States is bending over backward in its political rhetoric to emphasize the shared condemnation of Syria by allies in the region and around the globe. And it is particularly important as the United States gauges how to proceed with the military support of an important ally now out of the picture.

Why is multilateralism so important? It is partly because R2P represents a deeply cautious and tentative compromise between two important sets of rules -- the primacy of sovereignty and the primacy of human rights -- each of which plays a vitally important role in promoting human and global security. Neither should be easily disregarded on a whim by a single actor. While human rights must be protected, the U.N. Charter system itself is a collective public good: It ended a bloody history of great-power war and has ushered in the longest era of interstate peace in human history. States rightly allow exceptions to these fundamental rules only in extreme cases.

The rule that governments should collectively judge whether that threshold has been met is also a check on hubris. R2P channels collective outrage, but when push comes to shove collective reticence is often a canary in a coal mine. That key members of the international community -- including countries like Turkey that have a valid self-defense argument due to refugee flows, and members of the Arab League that would be happy to see Assad gone -- are unready to themselves take the lead would be viewed through an R2P lens as an indication that caution and deliberation is warranted. Does this mean inaction is the best policy? Maybe. Maybe not. But it does mean that unilateral intervention, even to ostensibly protect civilians, doesn't make a war "humanitarian" in the court of global public opinion.

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Rue Britannia

How David Cameron got royally screwed by Ed Miliband over the Syrian intervention both men wanted.

LONDON — A cock-up wrapped in a muddle inside a shambles. That's as good an explanation as any for the extraordinary scenes in the House of Commons Thursday, Aug. 29, as parliamentarians defied Prime Minister David Cameron and voted to ensure British troops will play no part in any military action in Syria.

A chastened -- and angry -- Cameron acknowledged that "the British Parliament, reflecting the views of the British people, does not want to see British military action -- I get that." Not since the Suez crisis has a British prime minister been so humiliated on a question of foreign policy. "You're a disgrace; you're a disgrace," Michael Gove, the education secretary and a foreign-policy hawk, screamed at rebel Tory MPs after the result was announced.

The MPs voted 285-272 to defeat a government motion that would have inched Britain toward intervening in Syria. The result may be bad for Syria's desperate civilians, but it is a calamity for Cameron's domestic authority and international credibility -- and the vote itself was a product of confusion, duplicity, and incompetence.

There are no winners and many losers in London today. Neither Cameron nor Labour Party leader Ed Miliband emerge from this fiasco with their reputations enhanced. Neither man wished to rule out military action, but that is exactly what they have done.

This was, in any case, less a debate about Syria than one about Iraq. The ghosts of Operation Iraqi Freedom were ever present at Westminster on Thursday. A decade ago, the British Army went to war on the back of inadequate and, as events would prove, misleading evidence about Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction program. The wounds caused by that misadventure have not yet healed. The breakdown in trust between Parliament and the intelligence services, and between Parliament and the public, has weakened British enthusiasm for liberal interventions of any sort.

Syria, of course, is not Iraq, and a limited airstrike on Bashar al-Assad's regime is hardly the same as invading and occupying Mesopotamia. But, as Rory Stewart, Conservative Party MP for Penrith and the Border and a former governor of an Iraqi province, said in a statement, "Britain has learned the lessons of Iraq, but it's in danger of over learning them."

Tory MPs complained that "the well had been poisoned" by the Iraqi trauma. But amid such public and parliamentary ambivalence about the aims and viability of intervention in Syria, government ministers overplayed their hand. Accusing their opponents of giving "succor" to Assad's regime was foolish and counterproductive in equal measure.

Cameron certainly misjudged the mood of the country and his party. His relations with his own backbenchers have long been tepid. Too often they feel taken for granted, and faced with the prospect of helping to authorize unpopular action against Assad's regime, 30 backbenchers rebelled. The revolt was small compared with those endured by Tony Blair on Iraq, but coupled with defections from Cameron's Liberal Democrat coalition partners, it was enough to lose the day.

The difference with Iraq, however, was that then the Tories -- in opposition -- supported the government. This week, by contrast, Miliband placed domestic political advantage ahead of his own personal preferences as he led Labour to vote against Cameron.

Labour did not oppose the government or Syrian intervention on principle but, instead, chose to do so because it was politically convenient and opportunistic to do so. Thus Labour voted against a government motion that was substantively the same as the amendment it itself had offered. And because the motions advanced by the government and the opposition were each defeated, Britain is now left without a foreign policy at all. "I'm not with those who rule out action," Miliband said Thursday. Yet his party has managed to rule out action anyway.

As evidence leaked out of Syria that hundreds of civilians had perished in an apparent chemical weapons attack on Aug. 21, Cameron chose to recall Parliament to debate Britain's part in any putative international response to the latest atrocities in Syria.

With the government preparing to support an American-led intervention, Miliband sought a number of assurances from Cameron. First, the government should publish the legal advice justifying military action. Second, the government should reveal the intelligence assessments making it clear Assad's regime, and not the rebels, was responsible for the chemical attacks. Third, Cameron should make it clear that Britain would continue -- however hopelessly -- to try to secure United Nations authorization for a military strike. Fourth, Parliament would need to vote again, once these conditions had been met, before British troops could be part of any international response.

Cameron, albeit with some reluctance, agreed to each of these conditions. The motion the government put down did not commit Britain to war. Indeed, it did not do very much more than advocate a wait-and-see-but-rule-nothing-out approach. Having been given the reassurances he sought, Miliband then voted against a motion containing all those reassurances.

The message is now, sadly, clear. If other countries think Assad has crossed a red line and feel the need to act, then they may do so. But Britain will not join the party. In doing so, Miliband said, Britain would stand up to the United States -- a cheap piece of populism that should have been beneath the Labour leader. Notably, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, in a forceful and passionate readout on Friday of the evidence against Assad's use of chemical weapons, did not mention Britain by name among the international allies that will stand at America's side.

"This vote sends out a message to the world that Britain has learned the lessons of its past," Miliband triumphantly told Sky News yesterday. And how! There are many good and convincing arguments against intervention in Syria, but being spooked by Iraq is not one of them.

Britain's remaining liberal interventionists are appalled. "In 50 years of serving my country I've never felt more depressed or more ashamed. Why do we need armed forces any longer? We've taken a decision now to opt out," said Paddy Ashdown, the former Liberal Democrat leader and U.N. representative in Bosnia.

The stunning nature of Cameron's reverse is still sinking in. Britain is not, despite some hysterical claims, suddenly an "isolationist" country (after all, it intervened in Libya), but there is a sense too that it is not quite the leading country it once was. Good riddance to all that, some say, but the failing to even have a proper vote on whether to use force to reprimand Assad is still disquieting.

There are good reasons for thinking that any Western response to Assad's brutality is likely to prove ineffective. It's a slap, not a punch -- much less a decapitation. Nevertheless, even critics who question the usefulness of intervention should pause to consider what kind of message is sent if the international community does not respond to the murderous use of chemical weapons. A line will have been crossed from which it may prove difficult to return.

As for Cameron, his reputation and his ability to command confidence have taken a fearful battering. His leadership position is not threatened by Thursday's reverse, but his standing is dented nonetheless. He is far from the only loser, however. Miliband won a victory this week, but it is one that comes at a heavy price too. His own credibility has not been boosted either. And nor, despite Thursday night's drama, has that of Parliament either.