Don’t Blame R2P: A Rebuttal to Margaret Wente

Sometimes I appreciate Margaret Wente’s contrarianism, sometimes it really blinds her.  Her piece last weekend on R2P and Libya was wildly off the mark, replacing critique with a somewhat bizarre stretch to lay ideological blame.  Below is a response I wrote with Anouk Dey for the CIC blog.

In last Saturday’s Globe and Mail, Margaret Wente provocatively opposed NATO’s  engagement in Libya. Just as Iraq was the neocons’ war, western intervention in Libya, she suggested, stems malignly from the machinations of the liberal intelligentsia.

The hub of her argument rests on the fact that members of the Security Council alluded to the doctrine of Responsibility to Protect in the lead up to the UN resolution authorizing a no-fly zone. The implication is that the liberal internationalists who support this doctrine did so to promote their ideas, rather than to protect those facing imminent slaughter.

Before going through her case, which warrants response, it’s worth remembering what R2P is and is not. Emerging from a Canadian funded commission in 2001 into how the international community should react in the face of crimes against humanity and genocide, the concept is meant to put a degree of conditionality on the notion of sovereignty. The sovereign rights of states, R2P argues, are conditional on the protection of civilians against large-scale slaughter. If this protection is not provided, the international community can legitimately breech sovereignty in order to protect the civilians in harm.

What R2P is not, is a blank check to invade. It is a threshold that can be used to guide Security Council endorsement for humanitarian interventions. It is a principle that was ratified by the UN General Assembly, not an idea unleashed from the ivory tower. It did not apply to either Iraq or Afghanistan. It would have applied to Rwanda. It applies in Libya, and likely in the Ivory Coast.

With this in mind, it is worth looking closely at the case made by Wente.

First, Wente argues that R2P is “rooted in Western guilt over the failure to prevent genocide in Rwanda.” R2P is certainly linked to failure to save a million Rwandese from slaughter. Whether you want to call this guilt, or shame, or disgust, what is important is that we recognized that something is grossly wrong with a system of absolute sovereignty that protects the right of a state to murder its citizens. Yes R2P is born from a brutal lesson in history – but that is a good thing.

Second, R2P proponents are not just ill-intentioned, “they’re also ignorant. They know less about the tribal politics of Libya than they do about the dark side of the moon. To them, all Arab nations look alike.” Never mind the fact that some of the most prominent proponents of R2P actually know a great deal about tribal conflict, but a wide range of experts in the Middle East and North Africa have also supported the no-fly zone. And it is not just regional experts who support the no-fly zone; so too do those who draw their knowledge from the field. Lt. Gen. Roméo Dallaire described the international community’s failure to invoke R2P earlier as “a colossal missed opportunity.”

Third, on the implementation of R2P, Wente chastises intellectual zealots who “have been so amazingly eager for us to rush into battle.” But here is the thing about preventing imminent slaughter, it has to be done in a timely fashion. Protective interventions must happen before mass atrocities occur, but in the past, we have waited until it was too late. This means that to stop atrocities, we have to act on the perception of intent – Quaddafi’s articulated goal to “cleanse Libya house by house” – rather than evidence of action. This is the very core dilemma of humanitarian interventions which the concept of R2P seeks to address. A challenge yes, but the alternative that Wente recommends is far less palatable.

Fourth, advocates of R2P are not only ignorant, sinister and quixotic. They are also French. The French counterpart to Susan Rice (US Ambassador to the UN), Wente remarks, “is the glamourous philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy.” Leaving aside the fact that he has no official role in the government of France, and she is an ambassador, Rice is a far cry from a pontificating leftist savant. She is the daughter of a former governor of the Federal Reserve and, at Oxford, worked under Ngaire Woods, a pro international financial institution free market thinker, who works closely with the IMF and the World Bank. Not particularly Lévy-esque.

Fifth, according to Wente, liberal internationalists who support R2P are also hypocrites. “Many of the liberal intellectuals who vigorously opposed the Iraq war,” Wente reveals, “have just as vigorously been advocating intervention in Libya.” Indeed, but this is no revelation. It is because they believe the latter meets the criteria of a humanitarian intervention, while the former did not. They also likely supported previous humanitarian interventions in Congo, Rwanda, Yugoslavia, East Timor and Kurdistan.

Sixth, R2Pers we learn, are really just imperialists. “We have entered a new age – the age of humanitarian imperialism. Humanitarian imperialists are besotted with the fantasies of the West’s inherent goodness… To them, the facts on the ground don’t matter much. What really matters is their good intentions.” Actually, it is precisely the facts on the grounds (that Quaddafi is murdering his citizens) that prompted action from the international community. This is why R2P was applied to this specific case. Moreover, many have argued that the intentions behind an intervention, actually shape the outcome. Take Iraq – the US invasion would likely have employed different tactics if the primary intention has been civilian protection, rather than the removal of WMD.

Finally, Wente tells us that Canada is only in Libya “because our allies are.” This may be one reason, but isn’t this part of a long tradition of Canada supporting multilateralism? Let’s not forget this mission has the endorsement of the Security Council and the Arab League and that a Canadian, Lieutenant-General Charles Bouchard, is currently the commander of NATO’s Libya operations. We would have likely played a more forward role in the lead up to the resolution if the Harper government had not banned the use of the term R2P (along with human security, gender equality and child soldiers) 18 months ago, but surely a Canadian currently in charge of the NATO mission counts for some sort of leadership?

There are two things that are certain about Canada’s involvement in Libya. The first and most important is that in the face of Quaddafi’s aggression, the mission was worth supporting, but undoubtedly brings with it a host of challenges. Identifying and addressing these challenges is important. The second is that on the issue of R2P, Canada has a rare window of opportunity to shape global action. Ultimately, Canada should be proud of the role it has played in developing and promoting the doctrine, a product of historical experience and learned debate. Unfortunately, analysis such as Wente’s gets us no closer to either.