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The United States and R2P: From Words to Action Browse

Contemporary Application of R2P: Practitioners’ Perspectives


Susan Glasser: Good morning everyone and thank you so much, Mike and thank you to all the previous speakers. I think we've got both the hardest and in some ways the most challenging part of the program this morning which is I would broadly define as ground truth what happens when the big frameworks and ideas that we've been talking about earlier this morning actually collide with reality. And not just the reality of the Security Council and the veto although that's part of it, but what actually happens on the ground. And I think practitioners was the term given to all three of these very distinguished panelists and that is a very understated description for the enormous challenges that each of them has faced at various points in their careers inside of government as well as thinking about them outside of government, writing about them. So I am just looking forward to the conversation and that's what we're going to have this morning. So I'm going to jump right in with everyone and start I guess with the hardest problem that faces us today which is Syria and to what extent each of the panelists thinks that that represents a challenge to even the basic idea of having an international framework when we see the political challenges that arise at a time when certainly everyone, at least in this room can probably agree, that a massive loss of innocent civilian life is a consequence of our inability to figure out some solution. So please, Heather, why don’t you start us off and we'll just get going from there.

Heather Hurlburt: Well, first, thank you so much to the cosponsors and to Susan for including in this very distinguished company. And it's very difficult to follow the two panels we've had already this morning. It's very humbling. But I think one way of approaching, Susan, the question of Syria is by comparing Syria with some of the conflicts that we tried to deal with before we had the R2P norm and I think specifically Bosnia because this is one that has come up in the media, and it happens to be one in which I served both in the legislative and executive branches of government so saw it from both sides. And I think the two similarities that I would point out is that, for better or worse, we are only two years in. And we tend to forget, although those of us who lived through it, and certainly the folks on the ground don't forget how very long it took the international community to come to something that could stop the violence in Bosnia. And here I come to the differences because in Bosnia we had a regional legitimator, in fact two regional legitimators, in the forms of the E.U. and NATO. We had a future, a regional future, that you could say to the warring parties that you want to be part of this. And you had, eventually, Rwanda as a recent motivator. And this I mention because it goes to this question of public opinion that where when the distinguished earlier speakers did the work of putting the R2P norm together, we all those of us of a certain age and global public opinion were very motivated by the memory of Rwanda. Right now for all that we talk about the greater acceptability of the R2P norm, what motivates elite public opinion in the US and other countries is Iraq. And that points you toward a very different set of lessons and frankly it makes it much harder to see Syria through an R2P paradigm. Now the good news, and I do think there is some good news, is that two years into Bosnia we were still fighting about whether it was legitimate for outside states to be concerned about what was going on on the ground. And what the R2P norm I think has comprehensively changed as Secretary Albright and the others said earlier - no one can say they don't know what's going on in Syria. The U.N. system is one of the leading providers of undisputed information about the scale of the humanitarian catastrophe there. And we have tools like the ICC, like the human rights body, that have been active and engaged on Syria in a way that we didn't have in the Bosnia context. Now that has not saved a single human life which is a very sobering thing for us fans of R2P to take on. So I would sum up by saying that what the comparison shows us is that the tremendous amount of work that was done on R2P has changed the terms of the debate but what it hasn't changed or hasn't changed enough is the fundamental power relation that Ambassador Williamson talked about.

Susan Glasser: Ambassador Burns, I'd love to get your thoughts on Syria and then we definitely want to go back to Heather on this very provocative but also very sad notion that it's an accomplishment for the U.N. to provide information about people being killed when it can't stop them from actually being killed.

Nicholas Burns: Susan, thank you and it's also a pleasure for me to be here and I really should start by thanking the Holocaust Museum, Sara Bloomfield and Michael Abramowitz for putting this together with Brookings and USIP. And I think we should all thank Secretary Albright and Ambassador Williamson. It's great to see a democrat and republican working together on a leading international issue and they've done- they produced a very important report. And for me the takeaway is the Responsibility to Protect is an essential element of international security in the 21st century because people are being killed. More than five million in Congo. More than 100,000 people in Syria. Not by interstate conflicts, but by conflicts within their own societies where their governments are preying upon them. And one of the essential foundation stones of this museum is to remember the destruction of European Jewry. Certainly we need to remember what happened in Rwanda, and we have got to use that template to think about the responsibilities that the United States has in the world as the leading power in the world. And part of it is to think about our self-interest and that was mentioned this morning, always. But part of it is to think about what is right internationally and what our role is and mobilizing the international community. So if we think about Syria, it's very definitely complicated, Susan, I think by the fact that, as President Obama has said, we're just coming out of this decade of war. We are looking in the rearview mirror. We are trying to learn rightly the lessons of Iraq and Afghanistan but in a way I think our national debate in some ways is imprisoned by them, and we've become immobilized. And there is this presumption out there that those of us who advocate action on a humanitarian basis need to prove the case and those who don't, don't need to prove it. And I think it might be the other way around. And so we created this dilemma I think where the United States has to think very deeply about its role in the world. It's no longer the bipolar world of the Cold War. It's no longer the unipolar led world of the Clinton administration when I was working for Secretary Albright but we're still the dominant actor. What are our interests in Syria? We have a huge interest in the humanitarian catastrophe that's developed there. The numbers are really appalling, 100,000 people dead, 4.2 million people internally displaced, 1.5 million Syrian refugees outside of Syria in countries that matter greatly to us, like Jordan and Turkey and Iraq. There's an interest. It combines both the self-interest and the global interest. A second interest we have is a realpolitik interest. We should want to stop Iran from becoming a dominant country in the Middle East, but Iran and Hezbollah and Russia are arming the Assad government and there is no comparable counterforce opposed to them. There could be. It could be led by the United States with Turkey, with Saudi Arabia, with Qatar and with some of the European countries but it's not well led right now. And so I think the balance of the argument has to be towards intervention, more affective support for the refugees led by the United States, and more effective aid to the moderate rebel groups who need to take the fight in this war to Assad. And if that doesn't happen and I think you'll see - and there are I think a couple of articles both in the Washington Post and New York Times this morning - we're probably looking at a very long war indeed. We should try to want to stop that war. I am very much with those people who believe that the United States needs to lead more vigorously, and needs to do more to try to cope with this terrible war.

Susan Glasser: Mike, both Heather and Nick have raised the specter of the experience of the last decade not in terms R2P but in terms of the Bush administration and the way it waged the war in Iraq and Afghanistan as being the relevant context to Syria as opposed to a humanitarian framing. Do you agree with that and more broadly what's your take on Syria?

Michael Gerson: I think that there's a definitely a political context in which all this takes place. And that is kind of national weariness with intervention. If you look at the most recent Pew polling on this topic you have 40 year lows in support for various categories of global engagement. That certainly is related to those events. There is also a serious foreign policy debate going on in the Republican Party about these issues about the value of intervention. And so you have a lot of factors at work here. I point out, I want to get to Syria, but we were dealing with Sudan, Darfur at the same time we were dealing with Iraq and that was a limiting context even then. When you're thinking about intervening in the middle of another Muslim country, in the middle of fighting a battle in Iraq so that was a limiting factor even then. So I don't want to deny that. But I guess I agree with the earlier commentary that we've heard all through this event, which is important, is that the needs that persecuted minorities in the world face and American national interests are not determined primarily by matters of psychology; they are actually determined by interests and values. And Syria is a case where we often talk about a conflict between interests and values, and I don't think it exists in this case. When we were dealing with Darfur, a terrible humanitarian crisis, but instability in Darfur meant instability in Chad. Instability in Syria means instability in Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, along the Israeli border and Syria is a proxy, increasingly just a puppet of Iranian influence having been supported by that influence. And so I think we've got a real confluence of those things here. But I want to be sympathetic with the administration on this, having lived through some of it - that's one of the lessons of “formers” when we approach these things, it's that they're not easy - is that the application of the Responsibility to Protect in the context of an active two-sided civil war is not an easy thing, particularly when neither side is kind of pure in this conflict. And that I think is a context that we need to take seriously. In general, I would just point out more broadly that when you face the choice between war and allowing impunity, the focus needs to be on producing better choices than this. That's one of the disappointing aspects for me in the Syrian context is that this began as a peaceful protest, in which, it might have been possible to take a more active role. But even there, I would just point out because I don't want to be too harshly judgmental on this, that it's hard enough to take action when there are real atrocities. It's very difficult to take action when there are prospective atrocities down the road. That is something that requires a lot of leadership and foresight, which are not always easy to show in a situation like this. And there is a tension at the heart of some of these issues between the understandable desire to use force as a last resort and the desire to take early preventive action. Sometimes early interventions can avoid terrible consequences down the road - even avoid cycles of conflict and revenge. One of my fears in Syria now is even the triumph of the rebels would result in terrible revenge. So early action can undermine some of those dynamics but it's a very difficult thing to do when the threats are prospective.

Susan Glasser: Ambassador Burns, let's go back to this question of what's in the toolkit for someone sitting in the White House, in a senior job in the State Department as this is played out. So you saw this during the Balkan War. You are familiar with the Bush era debates and that balance between what's a military tool in the toolkit, what are diplomatic tools. Does it help or not to think of something like R2P as a legal resource in a situation like that or ultimately is it really about politics? Give us a sense of the mix as you're considering what to do when a situation like Syria breaks out.

Nicholas Burns: I'd agree with Mike that one of the problems with Syria is that there is a risk of action and there's a risk of inaction. Secretary Albright referred to this when she was speaking too. It's difficult for the President and I have great sympathy for the President. I very much support him. It's really difficult to make this decision because you can see the course of American leadership, you can see why that would be in our interest to get more involved, to try to help with this regional picture to prevent an Iranian victory, to prevent Iran and Hezbollah from teaming up to strengthen themselves and to help our allies that Mike talked about. But you can also see that, I think you also have to see the risks of inaction as well. If you don't act you probably see that victory by the Iranians, you see further suffering by the civilians. The biggest question the President has to answer is, “Is there a scenario that the military can present that is achievable, that has an end state to it, and that is affordable?” It is very interesting to read this open letter, a letter that was publicized by the White House, that General Dempsey sent to the Congress. This is obviously a very difficult action to foresee. Arming the moderate rebel groups is not as expensive or as risky as setting up a no-flight zone so you've got to distinguish between the two. But the President is going to have to ask those questions. He's also going to have to ask whether the United States can rely on others to work with us and again Secretary Albright referred to this. Responsibility to Protect with the US in the lead does not mean the US alone. And in this case I think there are a large group of countries that want the same ends as the United States and Syria but don't have a leader. They are accustomed to the United States playing that lead role and that's not happening now as a further complication. I think finally Susan, the President is going to ask do we have the diplomatic wherewithal? Do we have the ability to lead on the ground? And I think in this case we certainly do because we still in a political sense are the most influential country in the world. We have a legion of friends both in the Arab world who want to be helpful here and want the US to lead as well as in Europe. So I would argue that if you look at that balanced question what's the risk of action versus inaction, I think that the weight of action, the risks are stronger for us on inaction. And this is a doable proposition that the United States could be more active in supporting the moderate rebel groups in trying to isolate Assad and take away the great advantage that he has now and the resupply by Iran, Hezbollah and Russia.

Susan Glasser: It's interesting that most of your arguments have made the very compelling geopolitical case for where the US national interest lies there. Do you think that the humanitarian case just isn't sufficient to overcome the public opinion concerns that Mike referred to?

Nicholas Burns: Well I think in this case and interestingly enough and this doesn't always happen, the United States can't intervene everywhere and it's not in our national interest to do so. I think our national interests and the humanitarian interests of alleviating the conflict actually coincide. And for some Americans that humanitarian impulse is going to be very convincing. For others it's going to be the national security argument. I think they're integrated and you really need to make both arguments to the Congress and the American people.

Susan Glasser: So Heather, thinking back you referred to your time in government and the Balkans conflict that erupted. In what ways do you think it would have changed the US response, or would it have been useful to you in your role, had the world adopted something like the Responsibility to Protect framework at that time? Or is it better or worse to have a policy against atrocities, to have an official US atrocity prevention board and then to have atrocities occur while that board exists or not?

Heather Hurlburt: I think there are a certain number of speeches that I helped Secretary Albright get ready to give about why we should care about what was going on in the Balkans and maybe she would have had to give somewhat fewer of them. You know I was sitting here and thinking about what were our successes and failures and where the tools came from, and so I wanted to in the spirit of bipartisanship mention a bipartisan success and a bipartisan failure. And the bipartisan success that nobody actually knows about or talks about is Macedonia. And I was just thinking but if we hadn't intervened in Bosnia and Kosovo, if we hadn't seen two sets of mass killings, would we have been able to muster the will of both the US and the E.U. to send troops to help keep a peace in Macedonia? So that you were using that part of the toolbox where you weren't firing weapons but you were putting the parties on notice that there were weapons that could be fired. And with some difficulty first with the Clinton and then the Bush administration very successfully partnered with the E.U. to prevent the kind of conflict that had broken out in Bosnia and Kosovo from breaking out in Macedonia. And that was done on the one hand without the R2P norm, on the other hand with the hindsight of years of violence in the Balkans. One of my most searing memories was of going with Secretary Albright to West Africa just as the conflict in Sierra Leone was winding down. And everyone understood that there were continuing extensive regional tensions that required a lot of outside support. There was also a lot of excitement about Mali's new democracy. And there was a lot of eagerness in the administration and in Europe to support the government of Mali and to support the other countries of the region and as I say it's a very searing memory for me that one morning we were in the region, we picked up our news clips back from the US -this was in pre-iPhone days - and some member of Congress had sort of inquired as to what the secretary was doing over there, pouring more money down a rat hole etcetera, etcetera. And so when recent events happened in Mali, I thought we had a decade to use all the non-violent R2P tools and we tried to use some of them, and we - the US - and we - the international community - failed there across multiple administrations and multiple governments. And so when you're talking about that's a case where we had all the nonviolent tools and we at least tried to use them but as an international community we failed.

Susan Glasser: Mike, would it have made a difference during the Bush administration for something like the Responsibility to Protect to be more enshrined for there to have been an Atrocity Prevention Board? Would that have done anything about Darfur?

Michael Gerson: First of all, I'll point out that the administration, the Responsibility to Protect was an internal commitment of the Bush administration. Our people helped produce the document and approved it so I think it represented this spirit that the President brought to a lot of these matters and which I saw on issues like Darfur. I mean at least the mythology of Rwanda is that there wasn't enough high-level attention. If George W. Bush had spent any more attention he would have had to have quit his day job. He was constantly on this issue. But this is the source of frustration to some extent from my own experience. We employed just about everything you can employ in the toolkit when it came to this, and tried to do it in a timely fashion. President talked about Darfur as a genocide. He ordered intelligence over-flights of Darfur, declassified the photos within weeks in order to call attention to what was going on. We provided massive aid, over two billion dollars in humanitarian aid, sixty-five percent of the total. We pursued sanctions against individuals and corporations. We worked with regional organizations, equipping and moving A.U. forces. The President, I heard him on the phone trying to get NATO involved and Chirac and others refused to get involved in the matter. We gave tacit support to the ICC. At one point threatened to veto an attempt to undermine the indictment against Bashir. We sponsored the peace process. Tried to work the Darfur rebels, I was there in Nairobi when we were trying to make them more presentable in these negotiations which was a difficult task, kind of a motley crew. The result was a humanitarian achievement. A lot of lives were saved because of massive levels of aid. But very little progress on the security side and really these events went forward with impunity. It points to the ultimate problem here, which I think is at least in my limited experience you have to take seriously. And that it's that a sovereign state dedicated to destroying a portion of its people, with the support of China and Russia and the Security Council and the cover of Arab solidarity in the Arab League, is a very difficult thing to deal with. Bashir, by the time I met him in 2005, when Bob Zoellick and I were in Khartoum he felt almost no pressure because he was shielded by a variety of these factors. And we could not and nothing would have happened in this circumstance, it did happen without the ability to generate a credible threat of force. And we could not do that for some of the reasons we've talked about but also for diplomatic reasons like the context of the North-South agreement which was taking place at just the same time to bring a conclusion to a bloody civil war. And also, and I'll point out that it's newsy, that the military, the Department of Defense, was one of the largest they were not a neutral actor in this, they were one of the most vigorous opponents of any action that related to humanitarian issues in Darfur - and as you are seeing in Syria with the testimony of the information that we see today. To the point where, I had the experience and I won't go into details, but to the point of near insubordination when the military would refuse to plan for the possibility of events where the President wanted planning. Because they didn't want the plan to ever be called upon. And so there's a variety of problems in this about coming up with a credible threat of force, the plan B that we talked about in Darfur and could never produce. And it's hard sometimes when you have dedicated offenders in this to get much progress without that credibility.

Susan Glasser: I am sure we're all thinking of Secretary Albright's famous line when it comes to the military in whether they should be called upon in crisis like this to step up and take action. But I wanted to highlight and ask the others to respond to your point about the U.N. Security Council, which has sort of come up in many ways. It's I don't know if that's a tool in the toolkit or a negative tool in the toolkit or just another weapon that trumps the toolkit, but clearly many conversations not just about Darfur but about Syria come back to the veto in the U.N. Security Council. Do you use that as basically trumping many of the tools that we have developed?

Nicholas Burns: Well it's the fundamental problem that the Obama administration has in Syria is that it doesn't have the capacity to use the power of the Security Council which can be considerable in this case because Russia and China in the most cynical way are blocking even a coherent discussion of how to respond to the humanitarian crisis. Not just whether or not the Security Council should intervene politically or militarily, they don't want to give any credence, any role to the Security Council in Syria because they are protecting Assad. And so because of that the administration faces the same challenge that the Clinton administration faced, as Secretary Albright said, in '98-'99 when it became clear that the Russian federation was going to veto any military intervention in Kosovo despite the fact that Milosevic was just about to annihilate a million Muslims there. The United States was forced, and this is really to the great credit of President Clinton and Secretary Albright, was forced to take up leadership of its own. We used the NATO Alliance, it worked very well, a very successful example, as was Bosnia, of American-led military interventions to save people in a very difficult situation; so in this case the United States has to create a coalition of willing in Syria of its own, but as I said before, Susan, I think we have many countries ready for that. And one way to think about this, David Miliband, who has just left British politics - he was British Foreign Secretary and the last Labor government is now going to take up the Presidency of the International Rescue Committee in New York - he gave a really insightful speech ten days ago at the annual Ditchley Lecture outside of Oxford, where he essentially said we have to understand that we're at a time when ten years ago there was a lot of criticism of the US and U.K. for intervening too frequently and too aggressively in the world. Now we're at a point where there's criticism that those two countries and others are not intervening sufficiently. We don't have a big enough sense of our own role and he said something at the end of the speech which really resonated with me. He said, "I prefer the course of activism to prevent problems rather than passivity in reacting to them." And that's the essential choice that we face in Syria. This problem is so severe in its geopolitical implications and humanitarian as well, it will be with us. The question is do we engage and lead now, and hopefully have a chance of the Assad regime sooner? Or do we wait for that country to tear itself apart, the humanitarian crisis will be greater and then we perhaps have a bigger problem because as Mike has said Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan, are engulfed by it and it's Israel's northern border as well. So to me, that's the calculus that the President has got to- the administration has to face.

Susan Glasser: So Heather, it seems like we're having one of those very Washington conversations. It's there's the seductive power to the idea of a policy and a toolkit, that's a wonderful phrase to an American ear. There's a toolkit to deal with atrocity. There's a toolkit to deal with genocide, but really we're talking about politics, aren't we? So what's your view of the politics here?

Heather Hurlburt: I have been known to ban the phrase "toolkit" from the stuff that we put out at the National Security Network because it is such an inside-the-beltway construct. And I actually want to talk politics on the global level first because the Security Council, for better or for worse, carries with it a degree of legitimation that nothing else matches. But there are other routes to getting legitimation. We talked about the role that NATO and the E.U. were able to play in Bosnia and Kosovo, and the big global political challenge that I see in Syria is that we simply don't have a body, a structure, somebody that can give legitimacy to the kind of coalition of the willing that Nick, you're talking about. And I from a US national interest perspective, but also from the perspective of the legitimacy of R2P, frankly, that if you see a coalition of the willing acting in Syria without some ability to say we are representing the will of the people of the region, particularly when it is so clear that you have some regional proxy conflicts going on. That that will fatally undermine both an effort to end the conflict and deliver another blow to the norm of R2P. And I think what's particularly challenging in the American context is that, you made the argument and it's one that has great appeal to many people, that one of the reasons the US should get involved in Syria is due to our geopolitical conflict with Iran. Now that does not sit terribly well globally with our assertion that we would be getting involved in Syria for humanitarian reasons. Nor does it sit well with the idea that we could be a fair or neutral arbiter of what comes out afterwards. And this is a challenge that we face. It's a very, very real challenge in Syria but it's something that we're always going to face with R2P. And it's something that has made it very difficult in the US political context because we live in a period for better, for worse where national security is very politicized and that we have frankly as I said we are all the Rwanda generation. And the generation that has come up after us, Susan everybody that writes for you, everybody that works for me, everybody that works here - does not see, is not seared by Rwanda the way we were and doesn’t necessarily believe that there is such a thing as disinterested humanitarian intervention, and we haven't figured out either to talk to our own elites or to talk globally how to square that circle and say, “Yeah, we do have an interest with respect to Iran and we have a humanitarian interest and both of those things are on the table.” And I see that as a really fundamental political problem for R2P globally.

Susan Glasser: I want to get to Nick but I also want to make sure that we get at least a few questions because I'm sure everyone has a lot of questions for this great conversation to keep it going and I'm sure you all have those. So start thinking what your questions are and Ambassador Burns I'll let you respond to Heather.

Nicholas Burns: Well I think we're in agreement that countries and governments act for a multiplicity of reasons, and it's the responsibility of the president to think first and foremost about what's good for our own country but he also has an obligation to think internationally and in this case I think you can use both of those arguments in a compatible way. I don't think it's a contradiction to assert that we have narrow interests, geopolitical interests, I should say as well as humanitarian interests that should guide us here.

Michael Gerson: Can I just add real quick? I think norms like Responsibility to Protect help create momentum even internally within government systems to raise the profile of these issues and the decisions that are made. It's the reason I am a big supporter of the atrocity prevention panel. It takes away excuses, raises things higher in the system earlier. I think that's all to the good. I also think advocacy groups play an important role in this to provide some political constituency and sometimes cover for these issues. Save Darfur and a lot of other groups played an important role in raising profiles and but I would only add that ultimately it's a matter of national will by the main actors in the international system. Whether they block things or whether they push things. And how you weigh the cost of action and inaction and the real goal here, the important goal, these types of interventions are seldom popular in any circumstance. Libya was not popular. And the question is whether you have the type of leadership that can not only determine what your responsibilities are but give you early enough options that are realistic to make a real difference in these situations.

Susan Glasser: Those are important points. Okay questions? Right here you sir? We have a microphone and give us your name and an ID, and please make it a question so we can move on. Thank you.

Lieutenant Buffalo: Hi, I'm Lieutenant Colonel Dave Buffalo. I'm the Military Advisor in the International Organizations Bureau of the State Department, PhD student at George Mason and at one time as a young lieutenant peacekeeper in Macedonia. The question is going back to the toolkit, I know you hate the term "toolkit". But going back to the toolkit and what Syria has highlighted for us or taught us. The atrocities prevention emerging doctrine states that as soon as you identify an atrocity the more tools you have. You have financial tools, diplomatic tools, non-lethal military tools whether it's mil-to-mil exchanges etcetera. When you have a country where we have no diplomatic relations and no trade and no mil-to-mil exchanges, and no investment, no aid, have we- does this show the conditionality of the tools at our behest? I'm trying to look at Syria and think that perhaps Russia has all the tools at their disposal should they want to prevent atrocities. But we had none. We come back to the whole state of our choices are do nothing or send in the Marines. I would like any of you to comment on the conditionality of the toolkit.

Susan Glasser: Thanks for a great question.

Heather Hurlburt: Actually the Obama administration deserves credit for having tried and not frankly gotten a lot of attention for trying to use the tools that it had. Having an ambassador who was very brave and really tried to use all of his personal tools that he had to try to go out during the nonviolent and the early violence phase for exploring options of sanctions for using public pressure, using what pressure they could muster at the U.N., trying to use regional pressure. So the administration did sort of look at what we know what works early in a conflict and did try to use what it could and so I think the idea that there were no tools is maybe not quite right but what it does show you as you said is that you don't necessarily hold the right tools and again this is why the toolbox metaphor is problematic. If you compare Syria with Kenya where neither side was really interested in taking their society over the edge, and so the tools that we had were much more effective because the parties didn't want to do to their country what Assad is willing to do to Syria. And again when you're dealing with that kind of raw power there's no tool that deals with that.

Michael Gerson: I would say sometimes, not to sound like an advocate of realpolitik, but in a case like Syria you have one side of the conflict, a desperate regime, Iran and Hezbollah that are all in. They are completely committed. They are willing to do anything to win. And then you have something different on the other side, and that makes not just Assad's strategic calculations different but I think even more in a difficult way, the leaders around him that might at an earlier point decided he was a liability in this conflict. That's sometimes the way things happen is that you can isolate a leader himself. We often talk about we would prefer to do negotiations in a circumstance like this. But when I talk with some of my older colleagues about this, what their concern about Syria is you simply can't have two sided negotiations when one side believes that they are winning. And that is I think one of the challenges that we've had in this process is that no amount of diplomatic initiative is going to make much of a difference when one side believes that they have an advantage. And that's something I think the United States allowed to get away from us earlier in this process.

Nicholas Burns: I would just say great question. We have the tools. It's just a question of strategy and will. Does it make sense for us to intervene and do we have the will to do it? And there are two options that were raised in the New York Times, Washington Post articles this morning on this open letter that General Dempsey sent to the Congress. One would be arming the rebels. We certainly have the tools and we have the financial wherewithal to do that should the President decide to take that further. The bigger question is should the United States consider the imposition of a no-flight zone? A lot of military people would say, well that's probably the easiest way to degrade Assad's ability to wage this war against the rebels and against his own people and to kill so many civilians and to drive them out of their homes. So if you impose that no flight zone, as we did in Iraq between the two wars, between '91 and 2003, that might be the single most important thing you can do. But it was interesting in all the press coverage this morning. What was highlighted with that option was do we have the money? And I must say that when I was working both for the Bush 41 and 43 administrations as well as the Clinton administration, we always had the funds, more or less, to do what the United States had to do to lead, and now for the first time we have to ask that question as General Dempsey did. I think the figure the Pentagon put out publically was a billion dollars a month to impose and maintain a no-flight zone. That's a forbidding figure given our perilous financial straits in Washington. So suddenly that enters this calculus.

Susan Glasser: Ma'am?

Barbara Dellow: Hi thank you, my name is Barbara Dellow. I wondered can the humanitarian efforts be evenhanded in judging atrocity by allies, by selves, as well as by regimes and persons we oppose? You know I'm thinking of Syria, in particular, where there is plenty of cruelty to go around. Can the humanitarian efforts be separated from the political positions?

Michael Gerson: It's a very good question. You face it even in some of the clearest examples like Rwanda where there are ongoing investigations of various Rwandan officials in that case. So it is often very, very complex and you often get when there is mass atrocities the prospect of a cycle of atrocities in these cases where very few people have clean hands at the end. You see it in Congo, where the U.N. is conducting investigations of past atrocities and past interventions and how it complicates current negotiations. All that said, that can't be allowed to be an obstacle for the prevention of civilian casualties. The primary goal here as others have argued - justice is a very important goal and sometimes it's a difficult one where both sides need to be called to account - but the overwhelming predominant commitment of Responsibility to Protect is the protection of civilians. And that should be the testing measure of US policy when it comes to these situations, so I think the justice is sometimes very hard to sort out but I think the protection of civilians has to be the guiding principle in policy.

Susan Glasser: We have a question here and then one there.

Mindy Reiser: Thank you, my name is Mindy Reiser. I'm Vice President of an NGO called Global Peace Services. I want to refer to what former Foreign Minister Axworthy said about the architecture involved in peace building and also Responsibility to Protect and the credibility of the Security Council as we just heard. What can we do to make the department of peacekeeping operations at the U.N. function better? What can we do to mobilize forces that can get on the ground faster? That is a real big bottleneck. And there have been efforts by a number of parties to develop a standing army. We know the political objections. We know the caricature of the blue helmets but this is really something that could make a serious difference. What do you think?

Susan Glasser: Thank you very much.

Nicholas Burns: Well I'll refer again to the speech by my friend David Miliband, which I'd urge you to check out on the Ditchley website. He says, that for a long time now the great powers including his own country and our country, have not really participated in U.N. peacekeeping with our own troops as you know. And it's been a particular weakness so I certainly think we need to reinforce from a budgetary perspective the capacity of the United Nations to field effective peacekeeping forces. There is sometimes tragically very little justice and very little fairness in how this all works out. The bloodiest place on earth is not Syria, it's Congo. And there is practically no attention by the American media to that problem and most Americans aren't aware of the dimensions of the conflict, but the United Nations is there with a deeply flawed peacekeeping mission. So reinforcing the capacity of the U.N. to act in difficult places where we don't want to send our troops is a vitally important thing. I guess I'd also say we can't always depend on the United Nations because if the Russians and Chinese exercise in their cynical fashion their veto, then it is going to be up to the United States and like-minded countries to provide the action in a place like Syria or as we did in Kosovo. So you really have to have the capacity of the central political institution the U.N. to act, but we also need to be free to act when authoritarian great powers prevent justice from occurring.

Michael Gerson: I will agree. I mean some of the challenge here is the capability of the U.N. I don't know if you saw the report that just came out yesterday the U.N. peacekeeping force in Darfur, that they have about 25 percent of their armored vehicles operational right now in the peacekeeping force there. This is a serious kind of challenge capabilities challenge on the part of the U.N. Some of it is capabilities of regional organizations, the A.U. and others that I think would be very helpful. When I visited A.U. troops in Darfur in 2005 they didn't have secure communications. They didn't have helicopters, they didn't have armored transport. I think they are better off now but increasing the capabilities of these institutions, I think, is very much part of trying to do this because often an A.U. intervention is just a much superior option in a lot of different ways. So I think you're focused on the right thing is how you get other actors in the system that have military capabilities. I'm kind of hopeful that at least in Congo they are experimenting with a much more aggressive civilian protection mandate. So it's not just, I mean I've been to Congo several times and the U.N. just sits around often in these cases. And I think there's a recognition that there's not an option. And they are experimenting with an expanded mandate there so it would be a good thing if some of those more aggressive regimens worked out. It would be a good option.

Susan Glasser: I'm told we have time for one last question. Yes, I promised to you, sir.

Paul Light: Hi my name is Paul Light. I'm an undergraduate student from Southern Alberta in Canada. I just had a question in regards to defining American interest in Syria. As a cost of inaction it seems like there's been an increasing presence of extremists flocking to the region on the side of the rebels and an increasing amount of infighting of the rebel factions. How is it in the American interest to support even indirectly these sorts of groups? I understand the geopolitical concerns regarding Iran and Hezbollah. There seems to be a Sunni hegemonic counterbalance between the Qataris and the Turks and the Saudis and they make no distinction between moderates and rebels. So how is it in the American interest to support this side? And if it is to degrade the advantage of the Assad regime, does that not beg the question of how you balance strategic interest and moral obligation because that was in my mind would serve to perpetuate the fighting and increase the humanitarian cause. Thank you.

Susan Glasser: I'm sure we can answer that in 30 seconds or so. [laughter] Would anyone care to try?

Nicholas Burns: Maybe we can all take a swing at this, it's the last question. First, since you're Canadian we really do have to congratulate Canada being one of the early supporters. In fact originators, conceptualizers of R2P and Mr. Axworthy was in the lead on that so we really owe Canada a lot for what it did to promote this concept and to get it accepted at the 2005 reform summit. Second, I agree with you and one of the most complicated issues that the President and Secretary Kerry are facing is this disorganized and feuding rebel misalliance, because there are some actors there we clearly do not want to support, radical Islamic groups that if we arm them they turn those weapons on American or Canadian civilians or innocents elsewhere. And so the trick here the challenge is to be very careful only to support those groups that you think share, in a basic general way our, own values and our own strategic interests. Is that impossible? I don't think it is. David is no longer here but David Ignatius has written consistently that there are such moderate rebel forces. We just have to make a decision as to whether we're all in or whether we're going or be marginal players. The difference here might be and it gets back to some of the earlier questions, why do we intervene or even contemplate intervening in Syria but not in other places? Because of this mixture of motives there's a humanitarian motive to intervene in Syria but there's also a strategic imperative. Syria is in the Levant and it borders Israel and Jordan and Turkey and those countries are all critical to us. It makes Syria important. And it gets back to the central choice. There are real risks of going in here not with troops in the ground but even aiding the rebels. And there are real risks of being passive and so the United States and Canada and other countries just need to balance those relative risks and make a basic decision. I think you know where I come down based on this panel.

Heather Hurlburt: I want to make two points and one is to go back to something Secretary Albright said in the first panel, which I think hasn't been repeated often enough, which is the fact that you fail some places is not a justification for not trying other places. And we have really spent almost no time on this panel talking about some of the very real successes not just Kenya but also Cote d'Ivoire which is an enormous success which I think is totally due to the existence of R2P. The Cote d'Ivoire would not have happened both if R2P hadn't existed and frankly if the Libya intervention hadn't happened. So just to make the point that the Syria case deserves consideration on its own strategic and humanitarian merits as a humanitarian catastrophe that all of us who have had a hand in not stopping should be scarred by. But that it doesn't erase the things that R2P has done to save hundreds of thousands of lives and keep societies together in other places. The point I would add or the slightly different gloss I would put on what Nick said is that we have really a dual-barreled strategic failure and it's one that our political system at this point makes almost inevitable. Neither in terms of US national nor in purely humanitarian terms do we have the ability to have the conversation about how this ends. What is the humanitarian outcome where somebody is on the ground preventing, Mike as you said, revenge killings that equal in scope what's already happened? Purely humanitarian, how do we do that? I don't know. The U.N. doesn't know, the Obama administration doesn't know. What is the end game for the US of what the region looks like that you don't have either ongoing Sunni – Shi’a civil war or the establishment of a kind of access that is inimical to US strategic interests, energy interests, interests in democracy promotion? And until you can answer those questions, I actually don't think you can design an intervention that will "work" because you don't know what "work" means. And frankly we still don't know that either from a humanitarian perspective or a strategic perspective.

Michael Gerson: I don't have too much to add. But I would say that the conundrum that the question raises actually points to the necessity of American leadership. The reality is that Turkey and Qatar were supporting some very bad actors in the Syrian civil war and one of the tributes, I think, to Secretary Kerry's focus on this is that he's taken a much broader role in trying to direct our allies to get the arms to the right people. It's often a role that American plays. If we don't take that type of leadership role, other actors in the system are not always responsible. The vacuum is not good for either US interests or regional challenges. So that specific issue that you raise it shows why American needs to be involved, why it's important that it is involved, and maybe why it should have been involved sooner. I would only conclude by saying I was once told by a State Department official when I raised issues related to Darfur, "You can't solve all the problems of the world." And that's true. It's frustrating and true. But it does seem uniquely American to try. And I think some of the worst moments of our history have come when we didn't try. And so our predisposition should be the priority of Responsibility to Protect which is to vindicate the ideals of human dignity that are at the foundation of the American experiment and the basis of our own ideology.

Susan Glasser: Powerful note to end on. Thank you all very much and thank you to everyone in the audience.

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July 23, 2013
United States Holocaust Memorial Museum