When Samantha Power, President Obama’s nominee to be ambassador to the United Nations, faced senators at her confirmation hearing last week, the first question from Sen. Bob Corker, of Tennessee, the ranking Republican, was how she defined an idealistic, if somewhat obscure, foreign-policy principle known as “responsibility to protect.”
It was a politically loaded question to a woman who made her name as an academic by arguing that nations have a moral obligation to act against genocide and other mass atrocities.
Power answered gingerly, saying that when civilians were murdered by their governments, “it’s incumbent on us to look” for ways to halt the bloodshed. But, she was quick to add, the principle is “less important, I think, than U.S. practice and U.S. policy.”
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The exchange before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee captured the awkward place that “responsibility to protect” occupies in the Obama administration. A 2005 U.N. initiative that calls on countries to intervene to prevent genocide and other mass atrocities, R2P, as it is known, has been endorsed by the U.S. and many other countries.
Some administration officials cited R2P to justify Obama’s backing of NATO-led airstrikes in Libya in 2011, which headed off a potential massacre of rebels by Moammar Gadhafi.
Yet the administration has said nothing about R2P during two and a half years of bloody civil war in Syria, in which Obama has refused to become entangled. In that case, strategic complexities have outweighed any moral imperative to intervene militarily on behalf of Syria’s embattled rebels.
Now, a new report written by Madeleine Albright, the former secretary of state, and Richard Williamson, a former special envoy to Sudan and foreign-policy adviser to Mitt Romney, argues that the administration should wholeheartedly embrace “responsibility to protect.”
“R2P sounds like some chemical formula,” Albright said. “It’s in many ways a misunderstood concept; it’s up to us to clarify what ‘responsibility to protect’ means.”
Williamson is blunter. “R2P is still struggling,” he said, in part because of the administration’s unwillingness to do more about Syria, which he criticized as an adviser to Romney during the 2012 presidential campaign.
But Williamson, who served under President George W. Bush, said there were deeper reasons for the U.S. aversion to foreign entanglements, having to do with fatigue after a decade of war.
“It’s a funny time in American politics when you have Rand Paul allying with the left about not getting involved overseas,” he said.
To some critics, R2P smacks of a multilateral approach to foreign policy that encroaches on U.S. sovereignty. An aide to Corker, for example, said he wanted to make sure that Power concurred that the U.S. should only decide to act based on its own national interests. Albright said such suspicions were based on two misconceptions.
“Responsibility to protect,” she said, calls for the use of numerous tools short of military force, from diplomacy to economic sanctions, to try to curb atrocities.
More broadly, she said, building a multilateral coalition to deal with foreign conflicts actually strengthens the hand of the U.S. The support of the U.N. Security Council and the Arab League for the NATO mission in Libya was a “force multiplier,” she said.
Under “responsibility to protect,” the main obligation to prevent genocide or mass atrocities lies with the home government.
“In many ways,” Albright said, “R2P is something that strengthens sovereignty because it makes it the duty of the sovereign to protect its people.”
The report — which was issued Tuesday and jointly sponsored by the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, the U.S. Institute of Peace, and the Brookings Institution — offers recommendations, among them that Obama “should articulate a clear vision of U.S. support for R2P” and “should not shy away from using the phrase.”
The closest Obama came to invoking the principle was in March 2011, when he justified the NATO airstrikes in Libya by saying, “To brush aside America’s responsibility as a leader — and more profoundly — our responsibilities to our fellow human beings under such circumstances would have been a betrayal of who are.”
As the death toll in Syria nears 100,000, he has not repeated those words. His advisers say Syria eludes the kind of effective strike that NATO was able to make in Libya. Power and other officials complain that the U.S. has been hamstrung by resistance on the U.N. Security Council, where Russia, an ally of President Bashar Assad, has vetoed tougher action against the Syrian government.
To critics, however, the Security Council is more an alibi than an obstacle. Albright pointed out that when Russia and China blocked an effort in the Security Council to authorize airstrikes in the Kosovo war in 1999, President Clinton went ahead and ordered them anyway.
Still, Albright stops short of criticizing the administration.
She said she knows how hard these decisions are. In the Clinton administration, she watched not only Kosovo, but the White House’s failure to prevent genocide in Rwanda.
“Having not done what we should have done in Rwanda,” she said, “it’s a very tough thing to decide when to do it and when not to do it.”