Joel H. Rosenthal is the President of Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs. He is also an adjunct professor at the New York University and chairman of the Bard College Globalization and International Affairs (BGIA) program.
Why do people talk about Libya being a successful intervention, and why might Syria not be a good idea?
Well, looking at Libya, one of the reasons why Libya was seen as a just and perhaps positive, from an American foreign policy perspective, experience was that it was put in the framework of humanitarianism. It was put in the framework of the responsibility to protect, and so was seen as a humanitarian intervention. And what that meant was that the United States was not acting out of some narrow self interest; it was not trying to conquer or engage in some imperial expedition, but it was actually trying to use its power for humanitarian purposes.
And so I think that putting it in the framework, if you look at how President Obama made the announcement, how the State Department backed it up, and the procedure of how the intervention was taken, you’ll see that it was argued as a humanitarian intervention.
In terms of Syria, similar circumstances in at least the humanitarian situation do exist. Why might that not be a similar case?
Right, so Syria is a little more complicated because the strategic interests there are a little more complicated than perhaps Libya was. So clearly as you say there was and is a humanitarian concern. You look at the casualties of innocent civilian noncombatant people. But, it’s more complicated because there are more powers that have strategic interests in Syria, so therefore motives for intervention become somewhat more suspect. Also putting together some kind of coalition to do the job is also more complicated.
From an ethical perspective, Libya was much clearer than Syria was, but there were some who said it went beyond that to protect civilians and became a political operation.
Right, so Libya still is debated. Again, the official Obama administration policy would be there was a moment in time where the rebel groups were in peril, where they could’ve been wiped out and without timely intervention along the lines that happened, there would have been a slaughter, a massacre. And so, within that window of time, and in that particular place, it can be argued that this was a humanitarian intervention. The purpose the intervention was to stop a genocide or a slaughter, and so you’re sort of stopping time there.
You know Syria is a much more difficult situation; it’s also not geographically the same. The problems are more isolated around the country, so from a military perspective it’s not as clear-cut. So if you connect the means to the end, the end is also not clear-cut either. So if there were an intervention, you also have to ask – to what end?
Where should humanitarian intervention rank in priorities for U.S. foreign policy? How does that impact when the U.S. should and should not intervene?
Well, the world does look to the United States for leadership, mostly for the better, but also sometimes creating difficulties for us. The United States has the capability — military capability, the power — literally the capabilities to get things done. It also has the moral persuasion and has the ability to bring others along. So with that comes a lot of responsibility, so that’s why people do look to us in these moments of humanitarian crises to see what the United States do. And that’s a certain kind of obligation for us, it’s a certain kind of duty for us. But there’s also a question of what the limits should be.
My point of view is that humanitarian intervention should not be seen as something outside our national interests. Humanitarian intervention, or humanitarianism, is something that’s intrinsic to our country. We can’t turn a blind to people who are suffering. So I think it creates some kind of leadership challenge for us, to be able to think – What can we do? What are the limits to what we can do? But it’s clearly in our national interests—it’s not something that’s separate from our interests.
Has U.S. credibility been diminished by our presence in Iraq, Afghanistan, and by civilian casualties, etc.?
I don’t think so. I think that there is always the concern of any great power using its power in some way that’s narrowly self-interested, that could even verge on exploiting. But I don’t see that in the United States. I think that my impression in talking to people around the United Nations and around the world is that the United States is seen as an important great power, which has a certain set of responsibilities and is genuinely a good actor in that regard.
I think the biggest challenge moving ahead is one less of overreach and more one of the United States staying involved as an important actor in the international community to help – whether it’s forging coalitions or getting others to come along. I do think that with a period of economic challenge, there will be a certain kind of pressure to withdraw.
Wanted to move into some of the country specific issues. What are some of the challenges in Egypt for the U.S. in regards to adjusting policy from a human rights and ethical perspective?
Clearly the U.S. wants to be on the side promoting democracy and an evolution in the Egyptian government that will be positive for human rights and democracy agenda. But I do think that there’s a danger to a lot of Americans to think that it’s actually up to us to deliver that. I think there are things we can do to help create the conditions of positive social change in a country like Egypt, but I think those things are around the margins. I think at the end of the day it’s up to the Egyptians themselves to forge the kind of government that they want.
There has been a lot of criticism of the Obama administration about the effect of the sanctions on Iran. How do you address some of those issues?
That’s a very good question, and I think that’s exactly right. The idea that sanctions are somehow the answer, I think, is somewhat shortsighted. Sanctions are a tool – an important tool of diplomacy – but they are a means, not an end. And frequently sanctions harm sort of the weakest members of the population – the young, the old, the infirm, those on the margins – more than they do the people in power. So I think sanctions are limited and they do have an important role to play in diplomacy signaling displeasure, signaling resolve, helping to forge coalition, and so on; but they are limited. So with regard to policy in Iran generally, there are some things we can do along these lines in terms of creating certain conditions that show our values and show our resolve. But they’re limited in a certain way, and the government of Iran will be up to the Iranians themselves.
Should the U.S. be assisting democracy in Myanmar?
I think it’s a place where we should be helping support our friends, and support the people and the movements that are going in the direction of freedom and democracy and liberty, but it’s not exactly our responsibility. It’s not our sphere of influence; it’s not up to us to manage this transition for the people of Myanmar. But as the world’s great power, that to the extent that we can stand with our friends and offer them support – and not just in words but in deeds as well – I think that’s an important role for a great power like the United States.
What about human rights concerns in the region?
I mean, its’ very tricky. You can see this when you have a regime that’s in transition; the past – and sometimes the not-so-distant past — is not so attractive, and so it’s a question of when do you deal with people? How do you help to manage a transition in a way? Are there people within that regime that we shouldn’t deal with? And there’s no clear answer to that.
We saw this, by the way, in Libya. The Qaddafi regime was supposedly transitioning, and there were those that got involved with that transition. Some people felt that was not exactly the right thing to do, that the Qaddafi regime by itself was what they had done in the past — you couldn’t deal with them. We should move on to the future. There were others that wanted to work with that regime; it’s now a moot point. But anytime you have an evolution of a regime, there are these questions of how to manage it, and it’s not clear.
What are the ethical points of contention regarding China’s role in Africa?
I don’t think there’s anything that counts as a free investment. In other words, China certainly has interests that they’re pursuing in Africa, and they should be seen that way. And if there are compromises in terms of the human rights and even in terms of some sense of equality, some sense of protection is needed – whether it’s labor, or environment, or their relations with the government.
I think they should be held responsible for that. I know that there’s a sort of an emerging rivalry in terms of the development of the African continent, and I think it’s not only fair, but it’s important to ask questions about what kind of development that we’re seeing there. Is it fair? Is it just? Is it equitable?