On March 28, 2011, President Obama laid out two principles for any U.S. action in Libya. The first is that America has the responsibility to stop “looming genocide” in Libya. The second is that when the safety of Americans is not directly threatened, but where action can be justified, America will act only on the condition that it is not acting alone.
When President Obama made this speech, he was criticized as leading from behind. In recent weeks, the President’s policy seems to be effective, and may prove to be a model for the use of force. The U.S. used its military power, including providing cruise missiles, aircraft, bombs, intelligence, and military personnel, as part of a larger NATO coalition, to begin airstrikes and create a no-fly zone over Libya. American officials have argued the Libya strategy worked because it was perceived as an international effort, and not a unilateral action by the American military. U.S. efforts in Libya have also been criticized because of the continued use of American warplanes after control of the air war was given to NATO in early April.
Since the Libyan intervention, the Obama administration indicated it will respond to the Arab world’s revolts against its dictators on the basis of “moral imperatives”. This approach has led to criticism of the Obama administration’s response to Syria. Deaths in Syria have risen to 1,400 over four months of clashes. The U.N. has not condemned the violence in Syria, and the U.S. has not named those countries supplying Syria with arms and financial wherewithal. The lack of action or results in Syria is frustrating to both the international community and Syrian citizens.
However, experts caution that the time may not be ripe for multilateral NATO action in Syria. Robert Malley, head analyst for the Middle East and North Africa at the International Crisis group said: “What distinguishes Syria from Libya is there is neither regional nor international consensus on Syria. There’s no specific area of the country to come in and defend.” Instead of using military force to intervene in Syria, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton suggested the broadest possible diplomatic pressure could ultimately have an effect, and potentially lay the foundation for more aggressive action.
The multilateral action taken in Libya and contemplated in Syria adds to the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) doctrine debate in international law. The R2P doctrine arose as a result of the global community’s failure to protect populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and human rights violations, and it outlines the international community’s response to such violations should the states involved abdicate their primary responsibility. The R2P doctrine has been strongly criticized in the past. However, in the past ten years, the doctrine has gained wider acceptance in the international community. In particular, the idea of sovereignty as responsibility to protect one’s people has begun to take hold. If Libya and Syria’s leaders abdicated their responsibility both to their citizens and to the international community, multilateral action may be justified as the R2P doctrine’s influence grows.