03.05.16 Responsibility to protect: A moral dilemma in the Middle East

I just finished watching “The Square,” a moving documentary about the brief rise and harsh fall of the Egyptian revolution, 2011-13. In the film, we follow three activists (two liberals and one Islamist) who take part in the massive people-power overthrow of brutal dictator Hosni Mubarak. We see the military hijack the revolution and the Muslim Brotherhood betray it, resulting in the absolute religious dictatorship of Mohamed Morsi. The film ends as first the people and then the military, led by Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, overthrow Morsi.

“The Square” doesn’t show us the aftermath, as el-Sisi reinstates an absolute military dictatorship, murders thousands, and eventually releases Murbarak from prison. Neither do we witness the increase in terrorism across the country as Brotherhood supporters and the crushed remnants of liberal democrats wage a war of attrition against the military in a destroyed nation.

When I see or read about events like these, my heart breaks for the people on the ground. At the same time I am outraged about this country’s complicity. For decades, a United States, obsessed with stability for Israel, supported Mubarak with a blind eye to his terrors. (The Clintons, who consider the Mubaraks good friends, are – perhaps – the most complicit of our fellow citizens.) For a brief time, perhaps half the time that the liberal revolution seemed to have a chance, the US seemed to be on the right side in Egypt. But then the US backed the blatantly unfair elections that put the Brotherhood in power (elections do not equal democracy!).

The US switched back to supporting military oppression as soon the Morsi was overthrown. Only months after the el-Sisi massacre in Tahir Square and the full institution of rule by brute force, the shameful John Kerry (backed, of course, by Barack Obama) was in Cairo, embracing the butcher and praising him as a democrat.

The broader lessons here are (1) the US fails (at least its stated values, if not its great-power interests) when it chooses sides in fraught situations, (2) the US fails when it embraces dictatorships in the name of stability over human dignity, and (3) the US has been failing every single day for 50 years in supporting Israeli security over nearly every other priority.


In the international human rights field (where I spend my working hours), there is a concept called “responsibility to protect” (RTP). This noble principle is meant to prevent further Holocausts, Rwandas, and Srebenicas (to name three of myriad examples). The idea is that the rights of human beings trump those of regimes, that state sovereignty is subordinate to preventing atrocities and genocides. In fact, states with the means to intervene in such situations are required to intervene.

If one cares about human life and dignity, this seems an unimpeachable moral philosophy. Indeed RTP is why I supported US intervention, as Muammar Gaddafi prepared to slaughter his opponents in 2011. The recent two-part series in the New York Times “The Libya Gamble” focuses on Hillary Clinton’s advocacy for intervention and the irony of her hubris about positive outcomes, with the Iraq War disaster still in the present. Not only was I with Clinton in 2011, I was also – briefly – on the side of US military intervention in Syria in 2013.

The NYT stories cover not only the decision making leading to US intervention, but also the aftermath, as the West loses interest and Libya slides into chaos, becoming (perhaps) a greater hotbed of international terrorism and human suffering than even in Gaddafi’s worst years.

This story is not really about Clinton or just Libya. Rather is it about the helplessness of the West to predict or manage outcomes, even on those relatively rare (in my view) occasions when its intentions align with its values. The US destroyed Iraq, increasing Iran’s power and creating ISIS. The US helped turn Libya into a failed state. The US repeatedly supported the wrong side in Egypt.

So, what does this mean in regard to RTP? It is a terrible moral dilemma. How do the lives lost in Libya’s collapse compare to those if Gaddafi had massacred his opponents? How does human suffering in Syria compare to an unknown outcome if the US had started bombing the in 2013? Do we have more blood on our hands by staying (mostly) out of conflicts or by intervening and “owning” the result?

My belief in RTP has been fundamentally shaken by the NYT series, as I have related it back to events of the past 15 years.

The GOP and its unrepentant neocons admit no moral dilemmas. For them, the answer is always intervention and always military. They never acknowledge the great hypocrisy of US foreign policy over 170 years, as the US preached democracy, but propped up dictatorships in service to US business interests. They never give up their simplistic and arrogant ideology, in the face of complexity and limited ability to dictate outcomes.

I have not become a complete non-interventionist. We should have stopped the Rwandan genocide (the country is now ruled by a dictator who has brought universal healthcare and massive economic development to his impoverished people – another moral dilemma) and were right to stop the one in the Balkans (where a cold peace rules and underlying issues have never been resolved).

I guess where I land is that principles and ideology (whether RTP or GOP/neocon) are no excuse for not thinking, not seeking to grasp complexity, and – above all – not acting with humility. We can’t declare we will never act. But if we do not face the world with an acknowledgement of limited power and understanding, then positive outcomes are utterly impossible. Ultimately, morally fraught situations must be considered individually and after deep deliberation, rather than through a single, simple moral lens.

I have reluctantly come to agree with Obama’s decision not to become enmeshed in Syria (though, I condemn the shear incompetence that led him to declare “red lines” he was unwilling to enforce). In the midst of this horror, nonintervention is more responsible than the alternative. (And, we cannot know whether doing a better job of arming the so-called democratic rebels in 2012-13 would have made us proud. We can see a long history of US-supplied arms being used against us after we exit the bloodbaths we have created). But, deciding not to intervene militarily, does not, cannot, excuse US support for the el-Sisis of the world. Egypt is a case where the moral thing to do was to exit with our tail between our legs and let el-Sisi sink or swim on his own. (As for Israel, it deserves no support at all from the United States as long as it remains a racist, hegemonist power.)

©2016 Keith Berner

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2 Comments on “03.05.16 Responsibility to protect: A moral dilemma in the Middle East”

  1. […] Iraq War and has tried to distance herself from that decision only out of political expediency. Her embrace of military intervention in Libya more recently shows a continued arrogance (your blogger was torn on the issue at the time for […]


  2. […] is the same reason why I have turned against the philosophically justified “responsibility to protect,” the international doctrine under which great powers like the United States have a duty to […]


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