Saturday, October 25, 2014
8

The Right Iraqi Intervention

CANBERRA – US President Barack Obama deserves unconditional support for his decision to use military force to protect the persecuted Yezidi minority from threatened genocide by marauding Islamic State (IS) militants in northern Iraq. The United States’ action is completely consistent with the principles of the international responsibility to protect (R2P) people at risk of mass-atrocity crimes, which was embraced unanimously by the United Nations General Assembly in 2005. The US military intervention touches all of R2P’s bases of legality, legitimacy, and likely effectiveness in meeting its immediate objectives.

In contrast to the original military intervention in Iraq – which touched none of these bases – the current US action, though lacking Security Council authorization, is being taken at the request of the Iraqi government, so there is no question of a breach of international law. And it would clearly seem to satisfy the moral or prudential criteria for the use of military force, which, though not yet formally adopted by the United Nations or anyone else, have been the subject of much international debate and acceptance over the last decade.

The criteria of legitimacy are that the atrocities occurring or feared are sufficiently serious to justify, prima facie, a military response; that the response has a primarily humanitarian motive; that no lesser response is likely to be effective in halting or averting the harm; that the proposed response is proportional to the threat; and that the intervention will do more good than harm.

The available evidence is that the many thousands of men, women, and children who have sought refuge in the Sinjar mountain range of northern Iraq are indeed at risk. They face death not only from starvation and exposure, but also from genocidal slaughter by the rapidly advancing IS forces, who regard the Yazidis as apostates and have already perpetrated atrocities unrivaled in their savagery. The US motive in mobilizing air power to protect them is unquestionably humanitarian. It is clear that no lesser measures will be sufficient, and the only question about proportionality that arises is whether the air strikes and supply drops will do too little, rather than too much, to address the emergency.

Unlike the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, it cannot be argued that external military intervention will be likely to cause more harm than good. It should be at least as effective in protecting the Yezidis (and Kurds and others in nearby Erbil) as was the intervention in Libya in 2011 to stop the threatened massacre by Muammar el-Qaddafi’s forces of the people of Benghazi.

Whether it will contribute to reversing the major gains already made by IS forces in northern Iraq, and to re-establishing the territorial integrity of the Iraqi state, is a different question. As the Obama administration has made clear, that will depend, above all, on whether the disastrously divisive leadership of Nouri al-Maliki, Iraq’s Shia prime minister, gives way to a more inclusive regime, and whether, in that context, the ineffectual Iraqi army can regroup and rally.

Though some conservative American voices are already calling for more to be done, no compelling case can be made in the US, Europe, or my own country for sacrificing further blood and treasure in an effort to prop up a regime so demonstrably unable and unwilling to help itself hold the country together. As I have argued previously, the only possible justification – moral, political, or military – for renewed external military intervention in Iraq is to meet the international responsibility to protect victims, or potential victims, of mass atrocities.

It is a little frustrating to those of us who have worked to embed R2P principles in international policy and practice that US leaders remain reluctant to use that terminology – a reluctance that partly reflects the perceived domestic political risk in relying on anything that comes from the UN. But it would be churlish to complain when, as here, Obama talks of “upholding international norms,” and in practice moves to do exactly what the R2P norm requires.

There are also, of course, American voices – like that of the foreign-policy realist Stephen Walt – arguing for less to be done, on the ground that US interests are insufficiently engaged to justify any military intervention, however limited. But this is to adopt a narrowly traditional view of the national interest – focusing only on direct security and economic advantage – and to ignore a third dimension, reputational advantage, which increasingly determines the extent to which countries respect and relate to one another. It is in every country’s national interest to be – and to be seen as – a good international citizen.

There can be no better demonstration of good international citizenship than a country’s willingness to act when it has the capacity to prevent or avert a mass atrocity crime. Obama has recently been criticized, in the context of his attitude toward the Palestinian-Israeli peace process, as being “cerebral in part of the world that’s looking for the visceral.” His response to the plight of the Yezidis in Iraq has been both cerebral and visceral, and both America and the world are better for it.

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  1. Commentedslightly optimistic

    China may be about to intervene conspicuously in another country's internal affairs in order to secure its investments. Not exactly R2P.
    In view of its growing need for energy, China has invested heavily in Iraq. But it is becoming disquieted by the unrest there.
    "Intriguingly the Chinese People’s Daily published an article last week accepting that China is part of the international system and has responsibilities for its stability. . . For China the consequences of becoming one of the largest economies in the world are just beginning to emerge", reported the FT earlier this week.

  2. Commentedm r

    But Dr. Evens' assessment is definitely WRONG- it sounds like the modern version of- "all the way with LBJ"- during US' Vietnam campaign. It also should not be that the US does all that it wishes to do and then seeks out the ilk of Dr. Evans to justify it- NO- no good luck.

  3. Commentedsilvio starosta

    Ok Dr. Evans , this time appears to be right,I really feel better
    But , lets forgot the 1oo.000 inocent deads of the previuos,and the chaos they leave behind ??
    Now ,talking about the Yezidi minority , seems fair.
    My question is: who gone to protect the maniac idea that the USA have to protect the world against Who ?
    Taking into accoun that ,Afganisthan , the past two on Iraq,vietnam, sudan etc. where US agressions ?
    Who is gone to protect us from the USA ?
    Why talk about moral or legimite intevention , if they don't care about ??

  4. Commentedslightly optimistic

    The future of the UN's R2P seems to depend on the willingness of nations to spend blood and treasure in enforcing aspirational political values. These values have less and less international support, when the price is calculated.
    Moreover the chief enforcer barely recognises the UN:
    "US leaders remain reluctant to use that terminology [*R2P principles] – a reluctance that partly reflects the perceived domestic political risk in relying on anything that comes from the UN "
    The future of NATO hinges on a similar dilemma, no doubt to be discussed at its crucial summit next month.

  5. Commentedj. von Hettlingen

    Mr. Gareth Evans says Obama's decision to protect the Yezidi refugees from being slaughtered by the ISIS brutes is the "right Iraqi intervention", which is "consistent with the "principles of the international Responsibility to Protect" (R2P). It's true that unlike "the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003", this military action has the blessing of the Iraqi and the Kurdish governments. Yet the "intervention in Libya in 2011 to stop the threatened massacre by Muammar el-Qaddafi’s forces of the people of Benghazi" irked China and Russia.
    Mr. Evans says: "US leaders remain reluctant to use that (R2p) terminology – a reluctance that partly reflects the perceived domestic political risk in relying on anything that comes from the UN". China and Russia abstained from voting against UN Resolution 1973 in March 2011, but they felt betrayed by the West, as it overstepped the mandate of establishing a no-fly-zone in Libya. Instead it led to regime change and the death of the long-time dictator Qaddafi. They believe in the supremacy of a state's sovereignty, which outweighs human rights. They see the Western powers' appetite to intervene inside a country's internal affairs, ostensibly to ensure human rights, as just another way for the West to try to extend its sphere of influence.
    Both China and Russia have been quiet about America's averting "a mass atrocity crime" against the Yezedi, because they see the US used the pretext of bringing democracy to the Iraqi people as a reason to invade the country in 2003, abusing its power to make the rest of the world fuse the idea of humanitarian interventions. So the Iraq war and the mission in Libya caused a rift that is still being felt by China and Russia.
    The core issue is, whether a nation has the right to decide its own affairs including the right to abuse the human rights of its citizens? Althoug it's the ISIS militants who are the pertrators, the old Shia-led government under Nouri al-Maliki had also violated human rights by persecuting Iraqi Sunnis and Kurds. The US and the EU maintain that protecting human rights trumps borders, but China, Russia and their soul mates think they have the right to exert total control over their territory. They insist on a nation's right to non-interference in its domestic affairs by other countries and its sovereignty, versus the international community's responsibility to protect human rights.
    As Obama talks of "upholding international norms", the doctrine that says borders are nothing and human rights are everything will continue to preoccupy the international community as soon as another genocide looms somewhere. Although the US has demonstrated "good international citizenship", it has to be cautious not to be trapped in another war in Iraq.

  6. CommentedPaul Daley

    The best thing Obama did was to send a mission to have a look before he got in too deep in Iraq. The responsibility to protect captures a noble sentiment but, in practice, is very easy to use to manipulate a larger power. In Iraq, the peshmerga withdrew and exposed the civilian population. Then the Kurdish government called for help to fight their local enemy. It would be interesting to know what international law has to say about that use of a civilian population.

  7. CommentedCurtis Carpenter

    Tragically, a great many Americans no longer believe our government when it claims to deploy military might in the service of "humanitarian" or R2P objectives. We have become altogether disillusioned with the notion that "hearts and minds" can be protected (never mind won) at the end of a rifle or a missile trajectory. We would LIKE to believe we act as a nation in the pursuit of humanitarian ends of course, but it is increasingly difficult to overcome our conditioned suspicion -- especially when the conservatives (neo- or otherwise) start hammering on their war drums.

    I appreciate Mr. Evans' assessment and hope that it's accurate -- but no longer feel I can share it without a large measure of skepticism and caution.

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