Ten Years Gone: Reflections on Iraq and the Future of Intervention

March 20, 2013 marked the ten-year anniversary of the US-led invasion and subsequent occupation of Iraq. The deaths of 4,804 coalition troops – 93 percent of which were American – and 807.4 billion dollars later, America is a war weary nation. As a result, the threshold for future foreign interventions – particularly those of a humanitarian nature – has been raised given the past decade in Iraq.

If the US is to commit forces to ameliorate humanitarian crises (among other rationales, humanitarian relief was used to justify the Iraq invasion), there has to be a material benchmark by which the decision can be presented to the American populace.

In 2005, the United Nations developed the emerging norm of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P), a multifaceted process that seeks to legitimate military action in the international community. R2P consists of three basic principles: 1.) The state carries the primary responsibility for protecting populations from genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing, and their incitement; 2.) The international community has a responsibility to encourage and assist states in fulfilling this responsibility; and 3.) The international community has a responsibility to use appropriate diplomatic, humanitarian and other means to protect populations from these crimes. If a state is manifestly failing to protect its population, the international community must be prepared to take collective action to protect populations in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations.

Although noble in its philosophical underpinnings, R2P is difficult to achieve in practice because of the institutional mechanisms that undergird it. Indeed, China and Russia’s blockage of action against Syria within the UN Security Council is typical of the kind of institutional constraints under which the UN operates when trying to politically mobilize against wayward member states.

Another point of contention R2P raises is its seeming license to liberate. Relegating sovereignty to a normative concept, which can be negated by virtue of maintaining R2P’s regulative ideals, provides a potential for misuse. It puts sovereign interests under the direct auspices of a select clique via the UN Security Council.

The specter of selective interventions — based on material interests of third parties — is not a far fledged possibility. Which metrics are to be used when applying R2P’s first principle — the maintenance of a population’s security from “genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing, and their incitement?” Does the ongoing state of affairs in Darfur not fit this description? It would seem so.

To this end, R2P as a barometer for international intervention presents theoretical and practical problems. Theoretically, R2P can be applied (or misapplied) to a wide range of international occurrences. In the UN Security Council (UNSC) — where R2P would be used — a single veto by just one of the five permanent members is enough to derail the implementation of R2P. This raises the question: What is the purpose of establishing a burden of proof if it can by can be bypassed by China, France, Russia, the UK, or the US — the permanent members of the UNSC? For R2P to meet its intended purpose, a reconfiguration of its institutional implementation must be considered (for example, allowing an R2P vote to be democratically opened to the 193 UN member states), especially in light of the elevated standard inherited from the Iraq experience.

Submitted by Edwin Daniel Jacob


The opinions expressed are those of the author, and do not represent the opinions of Rutgers University or the Division of Global Affairs.

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