I had a conversation last night about the responsibility to protect, and it’s a timely topic. The revolutions underway in the Middle East raise the issue anew, even as violence continues in the Congo, Sudan, and elsewhere. After World War II, humanitarians, the international community, and others all agreed: Never Again. It’s poignant that Argentina also adopted the phrase, Nunca Mas, for the investigation into disappeared persons and extrajudicial actions between 1976 and 1982 in Argentina – 30 years after the Holocaust of WWII. Those decades were devastating for much of Latin America. Similar repression occurred through much of the 3rd world – the battle field for contestations between the US and USSR. But it took genocide in Bosnia and Rwanda – with Bosnia’s proximity to Europe and the sheer magnitude of Rwanda – for the international community to consider a state’s responsibility to protect. The responsibility to protect asserts that a state has specific obligations to protect the people in its territory, regardless of citizenship, from the government’s own forces or other forces. A government cannot attack its own people, nor can it allow anyone else (like paramilitary troops) to freely or with impunity attack any people within its borders. The failure to do so undermines a government’s authority to rule. Sovereignty hinges on protection.

We understand states to be able to use and monopolize “the legitimate use of physical force in the enforcement of its order.” We also consider legitimacy to derive from popular support for a government; in democracies, the populace supports and legitimizes government, whereas in hybrid or totalitarian regimes support may come from a core of loyalists. Increasingly, however, recognition of the international community is also relevant to legitimate governance. The recent Palestinian bid to the UN for statehood demonstrates this, despite the bid’s lack of immediate success. If legitimacy and the ability of the state to employ violence are linked, then if the state misuses violence, or is unable or unwilling to employ violence to maintain order, such actions similarly affect legitimacy.

We tend to conflate people, territory, and government, hence the nation-state. It can be hard to imagine one of these without the other(s). The US is not the people who live here, nor the geographic territory, nor the government, but the combination of these. If one component changes, the entire nature of the nation-state changes. Still, the international community can cease to recognize the government of a given people and territory. That’s what happened in Libya – the international community and NATO stepped in, violently, to maintain order. The responsibility to protect was enforced by multilateral actions that usurped the authority of the state to act violently, and in so doing, the NATO forces acted in the state’s stead – notable because the international community does not typically act like a state.

There are two looming questions that the intervention in Libya has raised. The first concerns the ability of one nation to manipulate a given response by the international community. If the US retains some hegemonic influence, how does the international community cope with the possibility that the US might wield UN forces for its own ends? This is clearly a concern for Russia and China. The second question is whether it is possible to intervene in order to protect without military means. The problems of military intervention are varied. For one, civilians always suffer. Less tangible is the negotiation of power. In Libya, the forces that overthrew Gaddafi have not been able to accrue legitimacy for themselves. It seems clear that either the Libyan people or the Libyan government would have succumbed to the violence. Which one would have succeeded without intervention, and at what cost, is less clear. To go back to the Weberian understanding of legitimate monopoly of violence – no one gained the monopoly in that conflict, leaving Libya with no identifiable, legitimate government to take over. Now, the forces that overthrew Gaddafi are fighting amongst themselves – and the populace – for that monopoly, which may undermine what legitimacy they may have gained by overthrowing Gaddaffi. Perhaps without outside intervention, one group would have achieved clear predominance. Conversely, the outcome might also have been even more catastrophic.

With Libya seemingly settled into smaller-scale internal conflicts, international attention is moving on to Syria, and to a lesser extent, to Bahrain and back to Egypt. In Bahrain, opposition never gained the foothold needed to effectively project its message to outside observers. Egypt is in serious danger of slipping into military rule. But Syria… the tragedy that is unfolding in Syria is heart rending. It also demonstrates that social movements can’t necessarily compete with a state’s military, and that the monopoly of violence can be  a fearsome and deadly authority.

It is unfathomable that in an age when information is readily available like never before, a state could cut its people off from so much of the outside world. Yet Syria has done this – as has Bahrain, as did Libya, as have others. It seems that without some outside attention that carries the possibility of punitive actions, social movements are unable to effectively achieve change. Our understanding of nonviolent civil protest in the US is heavily influenced by the Civil Rights movement; we must understand that the entry of journalists into the fray was one tipping point in that conflict. Another tipping point was the eventual unwillingness of individuals and government officials to tolerate violence against peaceful protesters. Syria may be under pressure of economic sanctions, but those individuals carrying out this repression and violence against the opposition are clearly not under enough pressure that it outweighs the pressure from within their government to act and to sustain the regime.

In Iraq, Saddam Hussein needed to satisfy internal pressure to stand up against the west, while maintaining a totalitarian regime in the country. Meanwhile, he was also under the pressure of sanctions and international organizations to comply with monitoring and weapons destruction. We learned after the US invasion that the regime was effectively hollowed out by sanctions over time, and that Hussein had in fact complied with most of the demands put upon him by the international community. Yet Hussein continued to resist demonstrating his compliance; he risked losing face to his supporters. It is possible that US intelligence misinterpreted messages he sent, reading internal propaganda as truth and missing hints at the reality of the situation. More recently, we are in the position of trying to understand Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Iran, Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, and Kim Jong Il and Kim Jong Un in North Korea, attempting to sort out nationalistic propaganda meant for an internal audience from what they are actually likely to do. Especially with leaders that seem prone to extremism, this can be really difficult, and requires a very thorough understanding of the different groups that interact with or pressure a government internally, often working towards disparate ends. In Iran, Ahmadinejad must resolve the demands of a democratic movement, pressure from religious authorities, the military, conservatives, reformists, other opposition, and that is just at a glance. Syria’s Assad is grappling with disparate and tumultuous elements as well, making him more and more likely to make risky, violent decisions. Now that he’s set his course, it is highly unlikely he would be able to change it easily, even if he wanted to. With regional elements getting involved (like Iran), his position is even more polarized, bodes poorly for the opposition.

Is it possible to bring more international pressure on Assad’s regime? Surely. If it were possible to increase outside awareness through media and other sources, that would be significant in building support for other governments to intervene in some fashion. However, the US likely won’t be seen as an unbiased defender of human rights, but rather as undermining Assad’s regime because of the relationship between Syria, Iran, and Hezbollah. Moreover, it is entirely possible that increased pressure will further polarize the situation, making the outcome less predictable and increasing the chances of an even more negative outcome. It seems that there are several conflicts that all overlap each other, and they are all playing out at once: political alliances between religious groups; grassroots movements against totalitarian regimes; and even old school east meets west ideological conflicts that are as much about power as about liberal democracy or economic systems. More than a responsibility to protect, we also have a responsibility not to promote totalitarian regimes because they suit our interests. Unfortunately, that opportunity passed decades ago. The US is losing its status as a relevant authority in these types of conflicts (and post-conflict issues); if we want to regain a relevant voice, we should genuinely and sincerely join the conversation about how to grow effective democratic governance – not as the world’s authority on our brand democracy, but because we are invested in improving democratic governance, abroad and in the US.

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