As the world’s focus shifts from the natural disaster in Japan to the man-made one in Libya, a fascinating controversy has developed within the foreign policy establishment. Many, including NewsReal Blog’s Joseph Klein and our colleagues at FrontPage Magazine, have argued that America should intervene militarily in Libya. Those arguments have evoked a “‘responsibility to protect’ civilian populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity.” The United Nations has since passed a resolution to establish a no-fly zone, citing this “responsibility to protect.” This has led some to wonder whether the “R2P” principle will be turned against the United States and her allies, particularly Israel. The concern is well-informed.
It is easy to express righteous indignation in the face of Qaddafi’s campaign of terror against his own people. However, when we start to talk about a “responsibility to protect,” we are legitimizing a flawed strain of moral reasoning which could undo both national sovereignty and individual liberty.
Consider the ongoing debate over government administered health care. How often have we heard it said that there is a moral obligation to ensure the sick are cared for? Conservatives reject that argument. One person is not obligated to provide for another. In fact, it is immoral to mandate such provision.
That’s health care, you say. We’re talking about intervening to stop a massacre. That has no effect upon the underlying principle. If your neighbor’s house is on fire, or if he is being robbed, or if he is having a heart attack on his front lawn, are you obligated to come to his aide? This is a separate question from whether you might choose to. Would you be obligated to? Put another way, do you owe your neighbor assistance?
Before you answer, consider the implications. If you owe your neighbor assistance, it is a crime to deny it. If you owe your neighbor assistance, you must remain prepared to offer it. Like any emergency services worker, you would be obligated to submit to continuing education to maintain the skill and knowledge necessary to respond to you neighbor’s need. Your neighbor could rightly object to your diet and exercise, insisting you remain fit to assist him.
Of course, such a notion is patently absurd. We do not owe our neighbor assistance, and they have no stake in our readiness. We may choose to offer help. But no one is entitled to it.
The same principle applies to international affairs. As a nation, we may choose to intervene in a foreign crisis. Surely, we may cite humanitarian motives for the choice. However, we have no inherent obligation to tend to other people’s needs.
Consider the consequences of accepting the R2P principle. If we are obligated to protect Libyans from crimes against humanity, are we not likewise obligated to protect all individuals from atrocities everywhere? Exactly how will we meet this obligation? Who will make that determination? The answer, in the case of Libya, seems to be the United Nations.
What if the United Nations decides that Israel is committing crimes against humanity in Gaza and the West Bank? Are we then obligated to “protect” Palestinians? This is the potentiality Frank Gaffney addresses in a recent Big Peace post.
No degree of atrocity places a responsibility upon us to do anything. Arguments to the contrary empower statists at home and abroad who will always find some humanitarian justification to place an obligation upon the rest of us.
The choice to intervene in Libya or anywhere else should be motivated by our national security interests. As it stands, no one seems to be able to articulate what our interest in Libya is.
Regardless, let us not fall into the philosophical trap of inferring from the needs of others an obligation to act. You cannot control the degree of that concession. If you accept it here, you cede the moral authority to argue against it elsewhere.