The No-Drama Doctrine

by Dish Staff

Cameron Hudson finds the Obama Doctrine of genocide prevention sensible, if not particularly satisfying to those who would have liked a more robust American response to the crisis in Syria:

In an interview Friday with Tom Friedman of The New York Times, Obama remarked, “When you have a unique circumstance in which genocide is threatened, and a country is willing to have us in there, you have a strong international consensus that these people need to be protected and we have a capacity to do so, then we have an obligation to do so.” Some would argue that this explanation walks back from the high-minded justification for the forceful response to the potential massacre in Benghazi, Libya, in late 2011 when Obama asserted that a failure to act “would have stained the conscience of the world.” More importantly, it sets a new and seemingly higher bar for taking action to prevent genocideone that is unlikely to be replicated very often.

If that’s the intent, it is not necessarily a bad thing.

Genocide prevention, as a community of practice, is in need of bookending. In a world full of nailsor potential nailsthe U.S. military is the literal hammer. Absent a clear understanding of the circumstances when force could be used to save lives, advocates and communities at risk hold out false hope that the cavalry is coming, when it so rarely is. Understanding when a military response is on the table and when it is not will focus our attention on the cheaper, more politically palatable non-military options that should always constitute the heart of genocide prevention.

Aaron David Miller argues that despite the decision to strike ISIS, Obama remains as risk-averse as ever:

The Friedman interview revealed another important reason why Obama’s risk aversion is likely to endure. The president raised the issue about the lack of follow-up to help Libya after Qaddafi’s overthrow. “Then it’s the day after Qaddafi is gone, when everybody is feeling good and everybody is holding up posters saying, ‘Thank you, America.’ At that moment, there has to be a much more aggressive effort to rebuild societies that didn’t have any civic traditions…. So that’s a lesson that I now apply every time I ask the question, ‘Should we intervene, militarily? Do we have an answer [for] the day after?'”

Even though he doesn’t come out and say it, you get the sense that if there was a chance to do it over again he’d be much more engaged. But there’s another way to read the president’s comment, too. And that’s this: Military action is only one step in a complex process that requires a huge investment to create a relatively stable and functional transition from authoritarian to democratic rule. And Obama understands that hitting the Islamic State (IS), as necessary as it may be, is hardly a panacea for rebuilding the new Iraq. More to the point, that’s not America’s job. And Obama isn’t going to correct his Libya mistake by getting bogged down in nation-building in Iraq.

But Micah Zenko expects the mission in Iraq to expand beyond Obama’s stated limits, because they all do:

The expansion of humanitarian interventions — beyond what presidents initially claim will be the intended scope and time of military and diplomatic missions — is completely normal. What is remarkable is how congressional members, media commentators, and citizens are newly surprised each time that this happens. In the near term, humanitarian interventions often save more lives than they cost: The University of Pittsburgh’s Taylor Seybolt’s 2008 review of 17 U.S.-led interventions found that nine had succeeded in saving lives. But they also potentially contain tremendous downsides — as recent history demonstrates.

On April 7, 1991, the United States began airdropping food, water, and blankets on the largest refugee camps along the Turkish-Iraqi border that were sheltering Kurds displaced by Iraqi Republican Guard divisions brutally putting down an uprising in northern Iraq. That same day, when asked how long the U.S. military would play a role within Iraq, President George H.W. Bush declared, “We’re talking about days, not weeks or months.” In support of the humanitarian mission in northern Iraq, the United States concurrently began enforcing a no-fly zone above that country’s 36th parallel. In August 1992, a U.S.-led no-fly zone south of the 32nd parallel of Iraq was formed by unilateral declaration to compel Saddam Hussein’s cooperation with U.N. weapons inspectors and to protect the Shiite population caught in a counterinsurgency campaign in the southern marshlands. Bush was right about the U.S. military involvement not being weeks or months: The northern and southern no-fly zones lasted another 10 and a half years.