Obama’s Iraq-Darfur Analogy

Yesterday, Obama caused bit of a blogospheric stir by drawing a link between US genocide prevention in Iraq and unilateral invasions of the DRC and Sudan. His attempt to explain this position in a 10 second sound bite, and the reaction to, and interpretation of, his statement marks a telling example of a position missing from much of the Iraq foreign policy debate – that of liberal internationalists, and supporters of international humanitarian interventions.

So here is what he said:

Democratic presidential hopeful Barack Obama said Thursday the United States cannot use its military to solve humanitarian problems and that preventing a potential genocide in Iraq isn’t a good enough reason to keep U.S. forces there.

“Well, look, if that’s the criteria by which we are making decisions on the deployment of U.S. forces, then by that argument you would have 300,000 troops in the Congo right now — where millions have been slaughtered as a consequence of ethnic strife — which we haven’t done,” Obama said in an interview with The Associated Press.

“We would be deploying unilaterally and occupying the Sudan, which we haven’t done. Those of us who care about Darfur don’t think it would be a good idea,” he said.

As I agree with the position he is espousing, let me try to both translate and elaborate.

First, the intro paragraph to the report is incorrect. I do not think that Obama believes that US force should never be used to stop a genocide (and since Samantha Power is one of his principle FP advisers, we can pretty much rule this position out), but rather, that it is often an ineffective tool for doing so. What’s more, using the military for humanitarian operations often does more harm than good. This is an equation, learned though decades of such operations, that has to be part of an assessment of the use of force – particularly unilateral force in a highly sensitive region.

Second, he was not arguing an amoral position on either Darfur or the DRC. Rather, he was saying that just because we want to stop a slaughter, does in mean that the only, or best, policy options available is invasion. In fact, humanitarian considerations are often a reason to look to other mechanisms. There are a wide range of considerations as to who should conduct humanitarian interventions and how. Ignoring these can OFTEN make matters worse. The most ardent advocates of strong international action on Darfur and the DRC, for example, are not pushing for a US invasion. They are, however, urging for a whole host of initiatives that are presently not being done.

Third, if we translate this line of reasoning to the situation in Iraq, just because we care about the humanitarian emergency in the country is not a de facto rationale for keeping forces in. The very real possibility that these forces are aggravating a significant percentage of the insurgency needs to be considered. As does the fact that a majority of Iraqi’s do not support the US troop presence, and that many endorse strikes against them, and are providing the insurgency with the tacit support it requires. On balance, this may still mean the draw down would have to be cautious, and probably dependant on the formation of a UN peacebuilding mission, as Obama advocates.

Indeed, with this in mind, here is his recommendation:

“Nobody is proposing we leave precipitously. There are still going to be U.S. forces in the region that could intercede, with an international force, on an emergency basis,” Obama said between stops on the first of two days scheduled on the New Hampshire campaign trail. “There’s no doubt there are risks of increased bloodshed in Iraq without a continuing U.S. presence there.

”The greater risk is staying in Iraq, Obama said.

“It is my assessment that those risks are even greater if we continue to occupy Iraq and serve as a magnet for not only terrorist activity but also irresponsible behavior by Iraqi factions,” he said.

Seen through the lens of the international experience with humanitarian interventions and peacebuilding, a tradition in which Obama’s foreign policy advisers have considerable experience, this makes sense. If we are in a peacebuilding scenario, what is going to be needed is a massive humanitarian relief operation (which has not been done), supported by a UN peacebuilding force. Of course this will not be easy, but my bet is a humble next president, after dovetailing significantly from many of the more controversial Bush administration positions, and clearly expressing a humanitarian plea to the international community, will be able to secure these forces. I believe that Obama is the best positioned candidate to advocate this position, which is why I am supporting him.

One more thing. As we move into debates about post-Bush foreign policy, there is going to, obviously, be a lot of debate about various schools of US foreign policy. One thing that I think really needs to part of this discussion is how to not throw the baby of an activists (and some would say morality-based) US foreign policy, out with the bathwater of the nonconservative experience of Iraq. There are many who believe that the US should be an active player in humanitarian crises, but have a very different view of the mechanisms that must be used to achieve these ends.

Desired humanitarian outcomes are great, but if the mechanisms used have little or no chance of achieving them, then we need to dramatically rethink the tool box of foreign policy.

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