ASG Senior Advisor Brian Katulis speaks with Politico about humanitarian involvement in Iraq

The Obama doctrine?

By Josh Gerstein
POLITICO, 8/9/14
President Barack Obama’s decision to get the U.S. military involved in rescuing thousands of Iraqi minorities facing possible death on a besieged mountaintop is raising the inevitable question: Who’s next?

The humanitarian mission Obama ordered is another key chapter in one of the central foreign policy sagas of his administration: the struggle between the humanitarian impulse and the president’s cautious approach to use of military force abroad.

Thursday night, Obama articulated a foreign policy doctrine that genocide is a moral imperative that justified military force.

“When we face a situation like we do on that mountain — with innocent people facing the prospect of violence on a horrific scale, when we have a mandate to help — in this case, a request from the Iraqi government — and when we have the unique capabilities to help avert a massacre, then I believe the United States of America cannot turn a blind eye,” the president said.

It was the second time Obama chose U.S. military action to stave off a potential mass atrocity. And it has led to calls for the president to extend this doctrine to other countries, most notably Syria, where more than 100,000 people have reportedly been killed — many in brutal attacks by Syrian regime forces.

“I do not oppose the president’s airstrikes in Iraq,” former State Department official and New American Foundation president Anne-Marie Slaughter said. “What horrifies me is that we are willing to use airstrikes to kill terrorists but not to stop government terrorists [in Syria] from dropping barrel bombs on children.”

While Obama ran for president on a campaign to get the U.S. out of Iraq at virtually any cost, he chose humanitarian-intervention advocate Samantha Power — a chronicler of U.S. inaction in Rwanda in the 1990s — as a key foreign policy adviser in his Senate office and on the same presidential campaign.

The previous standout example of humanitarian intervention in the Obama administration was his decision in 2011 to authorize airstrikes to head off a potential massacre of civilians in Libya as the regime of strongman Muammar Qadhafi disintegrated. Obama reportedly acted there under heavy pressure from Power, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and U.S. allies like France and Britain, but he did have U.N. Security Council backing.

During Obama’s time in office, there has been no forceful U.S. military response to ethnic-based killings in various parts of Africa, including the Central African Republic and the Sudan region. Instead, the administration has provided military advisers and logistics support, while trying to organize others to restore peace. And he has resisted calls for direct military intervention in Syria, having briefly promised it after the Assad regime apparently used chemical weapons but pulling back when a diplomatic solution was reached.

Administration officials found themselves peppered with questions Friday about why the president had approved airdrops and potential strikes against Islamic State militants surrounding the Yazidis in western Iraq while rejecting years of calls for no-fly zones or similar strikes to protect civilians in Syria.

At the State Department, spokeswoman Marie Harf seemed exasperated by reporters’ questioning why the U.S. acted in Iraq but not elsewhere.

“We cannot and we should not fix every problem everywhere around the world or get involved in every situation. Or do airstrikes or do a no-fly zone. We have to look at each situation individually,” Harf said Friday. “We have a situation where tens of thousands of people could starve to death, and we have the ability to do something. We’re going to do it.”

“But you’re not doing it in other places,” said Lara Jakes of The Associated Press.

“There are scores of places where the U.S. Government could have acted to prevent genocide, to mention just two Rwanda and Darfur. … Why is it that you chose to stop a potential act of genocide in this one place when you have signally chosen not to prevent things that you have actively described as genocide in other places?” Reuters’ Arshad Mohammed inquired.

Harf said the U.S. efforts in Iraq was broader than just protecting minorities, since Obama also gave orders allowing strikes on Islamic State in the Levant positions outside Erbil in addition to approving such strikes to facilitate relief for the besieged Iraqi sect running out of food and water on a mountaintop.

“We hit an ISIL location today that had nothing to do with the Yazidis. Don’t make this all about the Yazidis,” Harf said.

“You guys are making it all about the Yazidis,” one journalist replied.

Former Obama administration Syria adviser Fred Hof said the administration seemed inclined to act in Iraq because of a looming genocide against a religious sect known as the Yazidis but less open to action in Syria which may not fall in exactly the same category but still involves killing of civilians on a huge scale.

“The administration has been quick to deny that the Assad regime’s impressive portfolio of war crimes and crimes against humanity adds up to genocide,” Hof wrote on the Atlantic Council blog. “It is as if genocide provides more of a humanitarian intervention mandate than mere mass homicide.”

Ryan Goodman, a professor of international human rights law at New York University, said Obama’s actions “suggest we’re in a trajectory toward muscular humanitarianism.”

However, Goodman said the factors the president set forth as limits really aren’t that rare or unusual, opening the door in theory to intervention in all kinds of ethnic strife and attacks on civilians.

“I thought the language the president used, the three criteria he articulated … were really quite open-ended and it’s difficult to find a natural breaking point on that or a limiting principle,” Goodman said. “We’re seeing weaker states around the world with strong armed opposition groups, that makes it easy to get a mandate to invite us in and we could make a difference. … It’s difficult to see the stopping point — for good or for ill.”

The recent history of such interventions has been that those that go poorly sometimes deter future actions, but the effect tends to erode over time. “The ‘Black Hawk Down’ effect of Somalia apparently slowed the Clinton administration in Bosnia,” Goodman noted. “The military success or failure of each one I do think kind of builds up for the next.”

One area where Obama was ambiguous about his latest decision is whether the U.S. is responding solely to a universal humanitarian obligation to act in the face of genocide or whether the history of U.S. involvement in Iraq gave Obama an added imperative.

White House press secretary Josh Earnest noted the history of American troops and taxpayers relating to Iraq, but didn’t directly answer when asked whether that was a factor in the decision to try to rescue the Yazidis.

“It does speak to the commitment of the American people to stand alongside the people of Iraq even in very difficult times,” Earnest said Friday. “There’s no doubt that the history is pretty obvious. What’s harder to assess is what consequence that has for our ongoing national security and how decisions are made for our ongoing national security.”

One expert said it’s unwise to take all the rhetoric surrounding a purportedly humanitarian intervention at face value.

“In this humanitarian versus more realist-pragmatists debate, I look more at what they do than what they say,” said Brian Katulis of the Center for American Progress and the Albright Stonebridge Group. “What they say sometimes tends to confuse, they wrap up action in moral values framework when what I think guides them more strongly are these practical considerations. … It’s a very realist, in that sense, administration. It has strands of humanitarian interests and moral values are important, but I don’t think that latter thing drives things.”

Katulis said he’s doubtful that Obama’s decision to use the military to act on humanitarian grounds in Iraq portends an end to his characteristic reluctance to do that in other cases.

“He’s a very cautious, look-before-you-leap type leader. … People like to pretend that Obama’s some kind of pacifist. He’s not. He’s first and foremost a pragmatist,” Katulis said. “A lot of people in the administration have argued for the use of force in other cases. … This is a very defined instance in which somebody made a convincing case to the commander in chief that the U.S. could have some impact.”

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