The Duty to Protect, Still Urgent

President Obama's failure to get Congress to support airstrikes in Syria, coupled with the vote against military action in the British House of Commons, brings home a key fact about international politics: when given a choice, democratic peoples are reluctant to authorize their leaders to use force to protect civilians in countries far away.

In 2001, the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty, on which I served, developed the idea that all states, but especially democracies, have a “responsibility to protect” civilians when they are threatened with mass killing. For those of us who have worked hard to promote this concept, it’s obvious that our idea is facing a crisis of democratic legitimacy.

Let’s be clear what the problem is: it’s not just compassion fatigue, isolationism or disengagement from the world. It’s more than war weariness or sorrow at the human and financial cost of intervention. It goes beyond disillusion at the failures to build stability in Iraq, Afghanistan or Libya.

The core problem is public anger at the manipulation of consent: disillusion with the way in which leaders and policy elites have used moral and humanitarian arguments to extract popular support for the use of force in Iraq and Libya, and then conducted those interventions in ways that betrayed their lack of true commitment to those principles. To quote the Who, the people are saying they “won’t get fooled again.”

Rebuilding popular democratic support for the idea of our duty to protect civilians, when no one else can or will, is a critical challenge in the years ahead.

The first step is to re-emphasize that protecting civilians is about preventing harm, not primarily using force. The public knows an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. It has no major problem with conflict resolution, foreign assistance, law and order training, or any of the other elements of prevention.

The real challenge comes when prevention fails, when force becomes the last resort. Here the public’s problem is mission creep, the way protection of civilians morphs into regime change. Many people who were prepared to stop Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi’s slaughtering of civilians in Benghazi grew increasingly uneasy when that mandate was used to bomb Tripoli. We need to make sure that the military puts civilian protection first and last as its sole legitimate purpose.

The third challenge, most difficult of all, is how to protect civilians when the Security Council blocks the use of force. For all the talk about American exceptionalism, the American people don’t like using force if the United Nations is against it, and they are uneasy if allies won’t stand with them.

The reality, however, is that if the United States wants to stop atrocity crimes, it may have to go it alone. With Syria, the United States’ threat of force has played a role in the diplomatic breakthrough involving Russia that just might protect civilians against further use of chemical weapons. If there are rare cases like this where the threat of force may be “illegal but legitimate” (as an international commission on Kosovo called the NATO bombing), the American people want to know how to keep the use of force from getting out of control.

This is why President Obama’s decision — and Prime Minister David Cameron’s, too — to seek democratic authorization for the use of force was the right way to go, even though it hasn’t turned out the way they wanted.

As they’ve both discovered, when you go to your legislature for authorization, there is a price to pay. When democracy becomes the venue for testing the legitimacy of force, the bar of justification is set high. Democratic legitimacy is not a substitute for international legality, but it performs one of the crucial functions of law, which is to subject the use of force to strict control.

Democratic consent, of course, can be manipulated, as it was over Iraq in 2003. But when it is, democratic peoples have learned from the experience and have raised the bar higher.

Their reluctance to use force is not a passing phenomenon. Immanuel Kant was right that when the people bear the cost of war and get a chance to tell their leaders what they think, they are reluctant to authorize it.

Still, it is critical that they be willing, in the right circumstances, to do so. In the future, the Security Council may be deadlocked about intervening, and presidents and prime ministers will have to turn instead to their people for permission to save civilians. If the case for action is made honestly, if no one’s consent is manipulated, let’s hope the people say yes. We can’t fight genocide, ethnic cleansing and chemical weapons attacks unless they do.

Michael Ignatieff is a professor at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard and at the Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto.

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