Catastrophes and Refinement of the Thrust

Catastrophes and the Refinement of the ThrustGB exchanges on the wisdom of Libya, the doability of Syria, and other candidate-theatres with Canada’s leading soldier-statesmen

GB: Was Libya a good intervention?

RD: No. Next question.

GB: Why not?

RD: Because we went in it half-assed. Let us set the scene. When Gaddafi had declared that he was going to crush the cockroaches and destroy the rats, it was definitively a gesture of intended destruction, annihilation, elimination. There was no desire to bring back a modicum of security or proper governance to Libya. He was just going to wipe out all those who had created problems. That then opened up the same door as it did in Rwanda with the extremists – meaning that we could intervene with the new doctrine of Responsibility to Protect (R2P), but intervene deliberately, not half-heartedly. Intervening deliberately meant that we would establish a clear demarcation line between Gaddafi’s forces and the non-Gaddafi constituencies – that is, the population that needed protection.

Once the population received the needed protection, there would be an opportunity for people to articulate how they saw the future of Libya. We would be holding Gaddafi in check. In so doing, we would have prevented the rearming or massive arming of the Libyan rebels and the mobilization of large numbers of mercenaries. Recall that the rebels – if the term is apposite – were essentially members of the very population that needed protection, and who had to bleed to different fighting factions to ultimately win the conflict. Today, post-Gaddafi, these factions are torn among themselves. Some have bled more than others, and some have decided to remain armed, while others have not.

But for the record, there was never an attempt in the NATO-led intervention to prevent catastrophic disintegration of the political-security situation on the ground. Moreover, once Gaddafi was out of the exercise, there was and remains no serious attempt to re-establish order such that the country may be rebuilt. And to be sure, the country must be rebuilt if we are to avoid further catastrophes.

GB: Were the deficiencies in the NATO intervention doctrinal? Were they military? Were they political? Were they analytical?

RD: First of all, there was a political problem relating to a deep aversion among Western states to military casualties and engagement in humanitarian interventions – a problem that goes back to Bill Clinton in 1993 and the Mogadishu intervention. This aversion has remained a major stumbling block for countries that are countenancing intervention – that is, they are still not gaining much traction with their populations in respect of having to spill blood in order to save others in foreign lands in cases in which there is absolutely no direct national self-interest at play.

At the same time, the middle powers – Germany, Canada, Japan and others – are not stepping up with possible solutions that would not necessarily require the full scale and weight of NATO. NATO should be the option of last resort. What we really want is a regional capability for engagement – reinforced under the aegis of Chapter VIII of the UN Charter. We want to get regional players that have not yet proven themselves – like the EU – involved before we get the permanent five members of the Security Council stumbling over each other, and thereby preventing an innovative and timely solution.

The second major problem is that the Security Council just does not have the smarts to handle a scenario that has gone to crisis. It has no strategic planning capacity whatever. It has no strategic command and control capability whatever. And so once it delivers its mandate to a military force – a UN force or a NATO or regional force – it loses complete control of the situation.

In the Libya case, I asked Canadian General Bouchard, the commander of the NATO air forces: “What information were you feeding to the Security Council as your operations were evolving, so as to prevent members from being caught by surprise when the regime is suddenly toppled?” He said, first of all, that he had no communications with the UN – that is, that his chain of command was within the NATO structure. Second, Bouchard said that NATO headquarters were not feeding the information to the UN Security Council because there was a rather loose presumption among NATO countries that the permanent five countries knew exactly what was happening on the ground in Libya, and that the permanent five were, among themselves, accordingly providing their input into the deliberations of the Security Council.

In other words, NATO gets the legal mandate and runs with it, pushing it to what it sees to be its upper limit. In turn, the Security Council is nearly held to ransom because it has no capability for command and control and no strategic planning, and no ultimate control over the employ of assets on the ground in order to ensure that NATO does not go beyond its mandate.

GB: In retrospect, was there a bona fide R2P justification for the intervention?

RD: Yes, absolutely. That is what really burns me. Nobody even wanted to use the term R2P. I do not remember any government saying that this was an R2P exercise. They went through the different phases of R2P as best as they could. They did a reasonable assessment of the six criteria needed for the possibility of deploying forces. That assessment checked out. But the actual implementation of R2P – that is, putting boots on the ground in a timely fashion in order to prevent the scenario from becoming catastrophic, and from ultimately destabilizing the whole region – was poor and half-baked. That is where we failed.

GB: Whence the aversion to using the phrase ‘R2P’?

RD: If we look at Canada as an example, the country is currently projecting – through its government – a policy or posture to the effect that it will do things in its national self-interest, but that it will not do much else. It might throw a bit of cash at something for humanitarian purposes, but it does not wish to get deeply engaged. So the term R2P is in Canada, for all intents and purposes, eradicated in official circles. Canada will intervene, but it will intervene on the premise of ensuring that the Americans are intervening, or that NATO is intervening. Outside of that, we are not going to see Canada move very much.

The other middle powers – even the smaller ones, like the Netherlands – are not articulating R2P because there is still debate in these countries in respect of the fundamental doctrine of our era. This doctrine has revolutionized the whole concept of sovereignty, and has in fact rendered state sovereignty no longer an absolute. Of course, R2P may be drawing these countries into scenarios in which they do not wish to be involved. So they do not wish to acquiesce overtly – explicitly – to R2P, which comes with manifest obligations to action. And all countries naturally want room to manoeuvre. But then it falls on us to ask these countries: if not R2P, then what was the basis for the intervention in Libya?

GB: Were you supportive of the toppling of the Gaddafi regime?

RD: No.

GB: Why not?

RD: Because it created the scenario in which we find ourselves. From the start, I thought that we had to have contingency plans such that we could escalate the forces in order to meet the requirement of boots on the ground. I was not getting any traction in respect of this argument. And this is due to the fact that everyone on the intervening side thought that Gaddafi was morally despicable, and that we had to get rid of him. As a consequence, there was no mechanism within the R2P framework – within the Security Council or within NATO – to prevent the situation on the ground from running away on us after Gaddafi was removed.

Instead, we should have treated Gaddafi as a proper belligerent – that is, as head of one belligerent side (the Libyan government at the time). On the other side, the protected civilians (through the R2P intervention) would have coalesced into some sort of political process. (We would presumably not need to arm these civilians, as we would have been providing the security.) This could, in principle, have led to a political discussion between both sides. One could imagine that, in the context of such a political process, Gaddafi could potentially be bought out. We might even have made him an offer, in the idiom of Charles Taylor, to the effect that he would get immunity in another country – which could then lay the groundwork, some years later, for delivering him to the International Criminal Court. But the very idea behind the exercise would be to remove him from the overall dynamic – that is, to cut the head of that force, thereby permitting Gaddafi’s subordinates to start making deals.

GB: Is there an international shortage of political talent or is there a problem of will and courage to make successful interventions in the R2P context?

RD: This era – the post-Cold War – needs new rules of the game. R2P is one instrument in this regard. However, I am not convinced that there is, at present, sufficient political maturity internationally to properly reckon with the doctrine. The concept is above the leaders. They have not learned enough to be able to apply it. And so this era is in dire need of new statesmanship – that is, people who can take risks; people who are flexible; people who are innovative; people who demonstrate humility.

GB: Is Syria today an R2P case?

RD: My gut feel is yes. The question is: can you apply it? It is difficult to identify the population that is to be protected. Moreover, the fighting forces have been so immersed in urban conflict that you would probably need hundreds of thousands of troops. After all, there is nothing that is more costly than trying to establish an atmosphere of security in an urban environment through the use of armed force.

Having said this, there should be strong consideration given to establishing safe or protected areas for the general population that has still not been engaged, or that has been able to withdraw into camps for internally displaced persons (IDPs). Indeed, we could reduce the size of the refugee camps by creating much more effective IDP camps – including by preventing armed parties from recruiting out of these camps.

GB: So you are talking about strict civilian protection, rather than outside military intervention?

RD: Yes. Military intervention might have been possible a year ago when the urban fighting was still very embryonic, the rebel forces were just gearing up, overflow from Libya was still small, and Iranian involvement was not yet fully formed. This confirms the basic fact that timeliness and timing are critical if we are going to credibly talk about preventing situations on the ground from catastrophic disintegration (as compared to preventing a mere crisis). When the window closed in Syria, I felt that the aim of the exercise should be to try to extricate the civilian population from the grips of the various belligerent parties. In so doing, we might work out a deal to the effect that the belligerents cannot have access to the displaced population until there are parameters established for the future governance of the country. Of course, that would still have required a fairly large number of troops, as we are still talking about millions of people who need food and protection. In the end, also, IDPs put more pressure on belligerents to come to a result than do refugees. (Refugees often quickly become someone else’s problem to solve.)

GB: Are you presuming that any military intervention in Syria today or tomorrow would be counterproductive?

RD: If you are intervening to stop the fighting, then you are wasting your rations. If you are intervening to stop the overt conflict and battles, then you are wasting time. You are going to take massive casualties. Worse still, you will never have the resources and the numbers to implement any stabilization scenario. The effort will again be half-assed: you may need 100,000 men, but you may only get 20,000, which would be useless.

GB: We have talked about Libya and Syria. Are there any other theatres that actively concern you as R2P case studies, or that may turn into such case studies in the future – that is, cases that need to be actively monitored?

RD: The one that is lingering, and with which I have been involved – and it certainly has an R2P angle to it – is Darfur. We have let that one rot on the vine. In so doing, we have let the Sudanese government off the hook. There is a crying need to get at the impunity in that theatre.

The other area that is smoking and could create a catastrophic situation for minorities on all sides is the North-South Sudan theatre. Abyei is the oil-rich region where the South and the North have not come to a resolution. This theatre could still blow up. I have been quite concerned for some time that the minorities in the North could be slaughtered. That has not happened to date.

GB: What about Congo?

RD: Congo is the extreme of the extreme. An uglier scenario cannot be invented. The cases that we have discussed thus far involve overt actions taken by different camps. We usually have two sides – or nearly so – each with very specific objectives. In the case of Congo, the problem is determining what the objectives are. What does Kabila really want to do with the Ituri region and the Kivus? Does he want to actually have these regions remain part of Congo, or is he willing to let them go and, say, allow Rwanda and/or Uganda to annex them? There is no system of governance in Congo upon which you can start to build a potential solution without having to use massive forces. (The Catholic Church – particularly in Ituri – has a better system of governance, interlocking communications and credible leadership than does the central government.)

On one side, then, one gets the impression that the Congolese government has abandoned the country in favour of whichever party wishes to rip the place off. Then there is the ethnic dimension of the conflict, with hints of the Rwandan-style Hutu-versus-Tutsi ideology at play – bref, one part of the population in severe conflict with the rest of the population, and simply not feeling confident that it will get a fair shake today or in the future. Add to this brew the immense resources at stake – for which a bunch of different players are manoeuvring – and you have a scenario for which I do not see a ready solution unless we do what we did in Cambodia: we take over the place. Remember that Cambodia was ultimately brought back to stability when the UN took over the country. The UN ran it and stabilized it in order to permit indigenous Cambodian government to take over.

Of course, in Congo, the UN is now introducing a new dimension – that of establishing peace through a rapid-reaction brigade. This rapid-reaction brigade goes after belligerents. It is a very interesting approach. Still, there is a basic capacity issue: does the brigade have the right people and equipment to do its job?

GB: Are you reasonably confident that you can sell leading Asian powers on the R2P construct?

RD: Unless Japan changes its perspective on its peace-dominated constitution and its self-defence doctrine, it would be very difficult to bring the other Asian players – including the Chinese – on board. I have always felt that Japan could be the leading edge of bringing that part of the world into a fold of activism in respect of stabilizing conflict zones not only in Asia, but also beyond in Africa. However, because the country that I believe has the requisite equipment, skills, strategic background, languages and knowledge to handle these complex missions does not wish to truly play, we end up with a stagnating situation and debate. But let me repeat: R2P in Asia depends very much on Japan being prepared to deploy intervention forces beyond its borders.

I should say that the Australians are doing a lot on the R2P front, and can be very useful in the campaign to normalize R2P – but they are not as strong or as important a global player as Japan.

GB: Your position in respect of Japanese strategic activism or extroversion would presumably be political and geopolitical dynamite in the region, given the history of Japanese behaviour. Would you agree?

RD: What about Germany? I have had arguments on the German side. I was the guest conférencier in Munster at the Westphalia conference that they hold every year. I told the Germans that there is no reason, in this era, for Germany not to take a significant leadership role in the advancement of R2P. Unfortunately, even some of the major players in the world, like Germany, are hedging their bets because of their particular histories. But we are no longer in an era of traditional state-to-state war or imperial wars. Rather, we are in an era of imploding nations, failing states, and massive humanitarian catastrophes in which we need outside intervention in order to provide stability. We really need outside interventions – a whole spectrum of tools – in order to prevent things from going catastrophic. In this sense, we are, doctrinally, almost starting from scratch – moving from the classical era of nation-state versus nation-state to an era of imploding nations and failing states.

GB: Can Russia be persuaded?

RD: Unless Russia changes its fundamental philosophy in respect of intervention, it is useless in an R2P world. I was at a recent conference in the US – a week-long seminar for military attachés run by the UN special operations command. The speaker who came after me was the first secretary of the Russian embassy in Washington. He viciously attacked the idea that R2P was any answer at all to the dynamics of the Arab Spring. He said that R2P would simply exacerbate that theatre, and that there was no guarantee whatever that the world that we would end up with after the R2P intervention would be better than the world with which we had started. Of course, given the Libya case study, where we have proven that we have had no concept of how to rebuild a nation, there is some merit to the Russian argument. In other words, it is one thing to get rid of the bad guys, but it is an altogether different thing to say: okay, now that we have done that, we are going home – you guys sort it out.

The Russian diplomat was, in the end, quite convincing in his position to the effect that what we are doing in our interventions, as in Libya, is not complete, and is therefore ultimately leading to more difficult scenarios. Having said that, on a moral score, I cannot suffer world powers that have the capability of intervening, but do not intervene because non-intervention is in their self-interest. As such, as I look at Libya and then Syria, I am not convinced that Russia is particularly worried about the moral failings of the old regimes in these states. I still think that the Russian calculus is dominated by cold hard national interest.

GB: If Russia or another major country thinks that, in certain cases, the outcome may be worse than the preface, do you believe that these countries still have a moral obligation to support or partake in R2P interventions?

RD: We are learning. We are trying to match R2P doctrine with practical implementation. In other words, R2P is fine as a conceptual framework, but how do you operationalize it in order to make sure that it works right? This is where the Will to Intervene project at Concordia University in Montreal comes in, as does President Obama’s work in trying to be prepared to respond to mass atrocities.

GB: Do you not fear that, absent Russian or Asian buy-in, R2P effectively reduces to a Western activity?

RD: We might liken that logic to the erroneous logic concerning human rights being a Western concept. I believe that this is rubbish. Human rights spring naturally from environments in which people are given the opportunity to get objective, rigorous, intellectual development through education.

The same logic applies to R2P. I do not deny at all that R2P is still not respected in places like Cuba, Pakistan and even Egypt, among other countries. However, just like human rights in the Far East, this is a matter of selling the product. In this sense, part of the UN’s responsibility is to find a means by which the organization is not continuously internally hemorrhaging on R2P – in other words, not continuously navel-gazing on whether R2P is good or not. The UN must now move to build deep international buy-in by the different countries of the world – beyond simply gathering information and intelligence in order to identify and assess possible future sites of genocide or mass atrocities.


Roméo Dallaire, a Canadian senator, was Force Commander of the UN Assistance Mission for Rwanda in 1993-1994, which led to the book Shake Hands with the Devil: The Failure of Humanity in Rwanda. His latest book is They Fight Like Soldiers; They Die Like Children – The Global Quest to Eradicate the Use of Child Soldiers.

(Photograph: CP Images / Fred Lum / The Globe and Mail)

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