The Problem with Strategic Ambiguity and Humanitarian Intervention

Many commentators have discussed the “strategic ambiguity” – undoubtably purposeful – of the Security Council’s resolution authorizing the use of force in Libya.  The resolution speaks of protection of civilians, but nowhere nails down the following, among many other issues:

  • ‘Referees’ or ‘taking sides’? Are forces authorized under the Security Council resolution authorized to pursue regime change, or or they limited to being “referees” – forces interjected into the conflict to protect the civilians but not to “take sides”?  Spokespeople from the several coalition forces attacking Kaddafi have said very different things at different times.  The Obama administration says that Kaddafi must go, but is that permitted as an aim of the use of force under the SC resolution?
  • What can be targeted and when? Under what circumstances, under the resolution, can coalition forces target Kaddafi’s forces?Only when they are attacking, or imminently attacking, civilians?  Or can Kaddafi’s forces be targeted merely by reason of being in the vicinity of rebel held areas, or for that matter, merely by being Kaddafi’s forces that might at some point be deployed against civilians?
  • Who are the ‘civilians’? Are the civilians only those who are genuinely non-combatants, or does it include, as has been suggested, even those civilians who have taken up arms in rebellion?  Meaning, does it include fighters who take part in hostilities but who are, under current rubrics in the law of armed conflict, regarded by many as still “civilians” even if targetable by opposing forces on account of their participation?
  • Is the SC authorization required from now on, in order to engage in the “responsibility to protect”? Or does the US remain committed to its Kosovo-era view that Security Council authorization for humanitarian intervention might be a good idea or legitimizing or diplomatically useful – but not a legal necessity?  Or has the US accepted (even by implication, and by the decidedly expansive language of its diplomats) the proposition that only the Security Council can authorize such expeditions?  (This proposition was, after all, the language of the 2005 UN reform Final Outcome document – a General Assembly resolution, but one with greater diplomatic weight than most, because of its connection to a larger UN reform debate.  It accepted the notion of “responsibility to protect” – and then that it required Security Council authorization.)

The fundamental fudge over the meaning of the Security Council resolution is over the meaning of “humanitarian” action in relation to the use of force.  It might have a broad meaning that endorses, in this particular instance, regime change as the only way to achieve the humanitarian outcome.  In practical terms, this means taking sides in the war, but without openly acknowledging it except indirectly as a means of protecting civilians.

Alternatively, “humanitarian” might have a narrow meaning that limits intervention to several varieties of “neutral” humanitarian activities.  Ensuring the delivery of humanitarian aid might be one such activity, even if it means using force; but the activity itself does not take sides and remains neutral.  Or it might allow the interventionists to target fighters insofar as they are engaged in unlawful attacks upon civilians. Once again, the interventionists are “neutral,” and act in a role akin to “referees” to ensure that the fighting sides leave the “true” non-combatants out of it.

Different parties (the coalition parties, but also China and Russia, and many other countries in the world not present on the Security Council) are able to take the Security Council resolution in any of these or other ways.  It was almost certainly drafted precisely to that ambiguous end.  The upside, of course, is that it provides an avenue by which coalition parties can move forward more or less as they wish, provided their lawyers and diplomats use the right forms of words.  The downside, equally obviously, is that precisely what makes ambiguity attractive in the short run is what causes it to come-a-cropper in the longer run.

Strategic ambiguity, as I discuss in a certain forthcoming book, is often a bad idea for these reasons, no matter how beloved of diplomats looking to get through present problems by forms of words that can .  It indeed has an honorable, if occasional, place: the fiction of the two Chinas has long been a useful ambiguity, since the alternative might be a truly devastating conflict.  The question is one of judgment as to whether ambiguity lessens or instead stores up greater trouble in the future.


Peter Beinart (whose book I reviewed herecorrectly notes that the foreign policy makers and  advocates – Samantha Power in the Obama administration, for example, or Bernard-Henri Levy in France – cut their teeth on Bosnia.  They are convinced that the world (meaning the West and, in particular, the hegemon which exists, apparently, in no small part to bail out otherwise failed systems of collective security) must act to avoid another Rwanda or Bosnia.  For the first time since Kosovo, they have a war of virtue, one to champion by contrast to the wars of, at best, mixed interest and ideals of Afghanistan and Iraq.  A war in which the US shows its virtue by having no notable material interests at stake, but only its willingness to shoulder burdens for Kant and the Categorical Imperative, as interpreted by the advocates themselves.

Liberal internationalist hawks and neocon hawks share hawkishness and willingness to use force, but have a fundamental asymmetry: the liberal internationalists (seeking proof of virtue that almost by their definitions cannot accrue to the United States) desire interventions that lack any obvious US interest (save in some very indirect sense that conflates ideals and interests), in the name of univeralism and virtue. The neocons are willing to act sometimes on account of pure altruism and idealism, but are also quite happy as well to act from interest in the most material and traditional sense, and by preference from a combination of the two  In any case, what the (Samantha) Power Doctrine seeks is universalism.  Since the doctrine conflates universalism with “internationalism,” however, the contribution of the United States to that universalism is the subordination of its power to more “impartial” and therefore morally superior “universal” organs such as the UN.

The neocons (in the neocon heyday, before being Chastened by Events) saw universalism differently.  They saw universalism as not being identical with “international” and the “international law and institutions” that define liberal internationalism.  Accepting certain universal values as genuinely morally universal, but not making “universal = international” – the neocons saw these universal values as capable of being sustained only under the umbrella of US hegemony, operating outside of the supposedly “universal” UN system of collective security.

The asymmetry has consequences. The SPower Doctrine generally seeks to subordinate the US and its power as real power, but within the UN system.  The neocons respond that if the US does not maintain its parallel system of hegemonic security and act through it or, worse still, seeks to place that power inside the UN (either at its disposal or subject to its veto),  the effect will be at best the fate of collective action games: everyone wants to be just another player while someone else pays all the costs.

The question for the Obama administration is whether to see this as a bug or a feature.  The administration’s liberal internationalists dispute that the collective action problem is not solvable, but acknowledges that if it were, that would be a bad thing – a bug.  The other half of the administration’s team, however, what I have sometimes described as the New Liberal Realists, thinks that the collective action incentive – the United States stepping back from its hegemonic obligations in order to be just another player, even though a powerful one, in the system of collective security, and so dumping both its hegemonic obligations but also its costs – is a feature and a deeply attractive one. The rest of us, watching from the outside, should be fundamentally worried that the Obama team starts from fundamentally inconsistent premises and yet reach the same conclusion; at some point it has to be one or the other.

A fundamental problem for the SPower Doctrine within the administration, then, is that half of President Obama’s team consists of liberal internationalists eager to preserve American power in order to subordinate it to the will of the international community. The other half has decided the US can’t really afford the power in the first place, and wants the US to belly up to the multilateralism bar as just another one of the folks in the world, in order to stand down from an unsustainable hegemonic role.  The President, the national master of strategic ambiguity, uses phrases that can go both ways.


That generally describes, in my view, the Obama administration’s preferred approach, as well as going a long way to explaining its paralysis.  As I said in an earlier post on the Security Council, however, I don’t actually believe that its current Libya strategy is actually evidence of this temptation. Its Libya strategy today is not the failure of the hegemon to take its responsibilities seriously (though its delay and uncertainty at the beginning likely were), but instead one of the relatively rare instances in which the Security Council can act as the “concert of the nations” in which it is not actually necessary for the US to be the leader.

It is peculiar for me to be saying that the Obama administration in its actions today, holding back from a public leadership role, is acting prudently insofar as it is prudent to get involved at all.  But given that there are few US interests at stake, others quite willing to lead, no obvious exit if one decides to lead, then … let the concert do it, or not.  The reason that many of those criticizing the Obama administration on these grounds do not come to this conclusion is that they have not considered the various roles of the Security Council that I discussed in an earlier post; there is a “concert of the nations” role for the Council that on rare occasions can succeed, without the US leading as the hegemon from the outside, and this might be one of those occasions.

The US delays and dithering early on – presumably in the intra-administration battle between the liberal internationalists and the New Liberal Realists – were indeed evidence of the US stepping back from its hegemonic obligations, very dangerously.  But at this stage, the decision to let the coalition lead under the SC resolution, so that the US is not stuck as the last man standing in the almost inevitable flight for the exits in Libya.  My UN book addresses these different roles of the Security Council, and notes that for all the quite brutal criticisms I make of the UN, the Security Council is one of the relatively successful institutions of the UN.  This concert of the nations role does not arise as a genuine possibility very often; the administration is right to take advantage of it.

The Obama administration’s ceding of the leadership of this to others is quite rational and persuasive, because it means that the US is not stuck when everyone else leaves.  It does not evidence what, true, I have often warned against – the US giving up its global responsibilities as the hegemon and showing itself the weak horse to others.  Why?  The rest of the world understands perfectly that the US does not see this as particularly important to it, and that it is right to do so.  There are not many times when the Security Council can organize a functioning concert of nations, even for a short expedition; this seems to be one of them, and it saves the US a lot of difficulty so … let the concert do it.


Yet the ambiguities that were forced by practicalities into the wording of the legitimizing Security Council resolution must leave one to wonder where this coalition is headed regarding the very meaning of humanitarian action.  After all, the greatest defect of Bosnian policy, in the eyes of today’s liberal internationalist hawk interventionists, was that for the longest time it sought to use force merely to play referee.  Moreover, in Bosnia, the world community (whatever, as David Rieff has said, that weird reification might be) did something that quite possibly (given the decision by the administratin to seek wide consensus before acting and so using up precious time on the fighting ground) might happen in Libya – freeze the civil war in place.  Perhaps with the kind of on-going slaughter that characterized Bosnia for years, perhaps not.   It is inconceivable that Samantha Power has not thought long and hard about these obvious defects in the international community’s response in Bosnia; it therefore would seem that the current policy of ambiguity is not by accident, but exists deliberately to supply the fig leaf of not taking sides … while taking sides.

Whether that is a workable fudge or not, or whether it is a good idea or not, I won’t address here.  But it is important to understand that the strategic ambiguity around the definition of humanitarian action itself has important and possibly very bad consequences for undertaking genuinely neutral humanitarian activities, of the kind that genuinely neutral monitors such as the International Committee of the Red Cross undertake.  After all, if one says that “we are not taking sides,” but instead are merely protecting civilians for humanitarian reasons – while, in actual fact, taking sides and aiming at regime change, that deliberately strategic obscuring of what is “neutral humanitarianism” and what is “taking sides” cannot be good for the genuinely neutral humanitarian actors.  In my estimation it makes the pursuit of genuinely neutral humanitarian action more difficult and dangerous down the road.  (I discuss this question in this article.)  It seems to me that these kinds of fudges make the work of the independent aid workers more fraught, not less.


But we might then ask, why justify a policy that necessarily involves taking sides? – regime change –   by reach to humanitarianism in a way that implies, at least, that one is “neutral” and merely in favor of the “civilians”?  The reason, of course, is that the appeal to this “neutral” humanitarianism, real or faux, is understood to increase the legitimacy of the action.  It attaches a label of universal morality to the act; it is not partial, it is impartial, universalist, and, because it is in the interest of the “uninvolved” civilians, nothing that anyone could rationally or morally dispute.

I discuss the conceptual and practical problems with this view in the article above.  But note as well that the moral-legal-political positions, among which coalition members seem to be vacillating, begin from a familiar starting place.  Familiar but, in my view, quite wrong.  It is that the highest moral position in debating the use of force, armed conflict, etc., is the standpoint of the humanitarian, and finally that of the humanitarian neutral, standing above all the partial and bickering and fighting humanity, and offering them succor (and later, through equally neutral and universal tribunals, justice).  The highest moral position, the moral high ground, on this account, is the place above us all looking down, occupied by the humanitarian neutrals, remote angels who do not take sides.

For reasons I argue in the above article as well as in this short book review, “What the Swiss Miss,” this is not right.  The humanitarian neutral is a vital, but morally residual category.  We are not morally saved if everyone is the ICRC and no one is Churchill.  I’ve said this before.  But what has not been said sufficiently, I think, is this.  If we are wrong to treat the humanitarian neutrals as a somehow morally prior category over taking sides against evil, well, we are also wrong to try and take the legitimacy that we have given to humanitarian neutrals, and use it to try and, so to speak, gussy up Churchill by making his explicit and unapologetic taking of sides to be even better than that because it is actually a form of humanitarian neutrality.


(There is an important but largely unexplored theory to be developed here around the question of sides, partiality and impartiality, and the “angelic” point of view, specifically in the ethics of conflict.  Gabriella Blum has started into these areas a matter of ethics and law, but it remains mostly untouched territory.)

(Updated to clarify some things and straighten out some grammar.)

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