“Responsibility to protect” – the key international doctrine at work in Libya – has a Good Samaritan sort of rub to it. Conceived out of the tragedy of Rwanda, it was a moral stake by the international community that “never again” would we walk along past unspeakable atrocities. It was a faith-full moment, a moment full of hope for a different way in global affairs that privileged innocence over power, justice over might and mercy over indifference.
Yet until Libya, it was still just another paper idea on the books at the United Nations. Now, while the bombs are dropping in Libya and interventionists are getting fired up about responsibility to protect – or R2P – finally birthing a real humanitarian regime, it’s worth putting some thought into how difficult and painful the birth of this Good Samaritan doctrine has proved to be.
If R2P is our Good Samaritan moment, we’ve yet to reach down and bind any wounds – or open our homes. Dropping intervention from 40,000 feet (to paraphrase David Cameron) to score tactical hits on behalf of one side in a civil war is somewhat different than what the architects of R2P had in mind. Of course, we’re sort of making this up as we go along. Clearly it was important to use the moral language of R2P and to have the French lead the way, lest the neo-conservative ghosts of the Bush doctrine come to haunt Obama. But this also means we have no real plan, which is neither consistent with R2P nor with Good Samaritan kind of foresight – to say nothing of the long Christian tradition of Just War.
The strategy right now feels eerily like bombing Qaddafi into a stalemate and stalemates can’t be broken from the air. Eventually someone has to go onto the ground and secure a peace. There was fragmented talk of arming the rebels to do it in our stead. But the ghosts of that past are worse still than the Bush doctrine. If this is R2P, it’s R2P-lite, which still might be better than no R2P at all. But for Good Samaritan Christians, the justness of this conflict is evaporating by the day as U.N. powers dither ever longer on if and how this civil war can be transitioned from stalemate to peace. At some point you need to get off your donkey and kneel in the ditch.
All of which begins to suggest why R2P hasn’t made inroads into interventions in places like Ivory Coast, where bombs have also fallen and the prospect of a stable government remains tenuous. Disembodied air power won’t tip the balance to just peace in the Ivory Coast or, for that matter, in Somalia or Haiti or – probably – Libya. R2P advocates who are anxiously waiting for an international coalition to act on these and other failed states will wait a long time. American power has developed an allergy to neo-con state building, albeit buttressed by a colossal deficit. But one thing the neo-cons had right is this: when you drop the bombs, you’re in for the long haul. It’s not enough to stalemate the bad guys and hope for the best. Good Samaritan politics don’t abide a quick fix. There is no “early in, early out” in R2P.