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Public Statements

Hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee - Hearing on Syria and Humanitarian Interventions

Hearing

By:
Date:
Location: Washington, DC

At a Foreign Relations Committee hearing on Syria today, Senator Jim Webb (D-VA) reiterated his position that the decision to launch military interventions under the doctrine of "responsibility to protect" foreigners from their own regimes should be decided by the Congress not unilaterally by the President. Senator Webb has repeatedly voiced concerns about the administration's evolving policy of taking military action for humanitarian reasons since the intervention in Libya.

"How is it decided that the United States itself should get involved in these humanitarian situations?" asked Senator Webb. "When it comes to this relatively new concept of humanitarian intervention, the best way to be resolving that question is to put it to a vote of the United States Congress. We never even had a floor debate on Libya. I just think that was wrong."

"The situation we have had with humanitarian intervention is unique in our history because there is not a treaty involved, we are not under attack, we are not under imminent attack, and we are not rescuing Americans," said Senator Webb, who served as Assistant Secretary of Defense and as Secretary of the Navy in the Reagan administration. "I don't think we have resolved this properly in terms of the balance of power between the executive and legislative branches. My belief is that when you make that determination, you should be making it in the United States Congress, not by one individual of whichever party who happens to be president."

Senator Webb also called for consistency in determining whether a regime has lost its legitimacy and the international community should intervene. He recounted asking Defense Secretary Leon Panetta at a recent hearing whether the statement that "any government that indiscriminately kills its own people loses its legitimacy" would apply to the example of the Chinese government's actions in Tiananmen Square in 1989. Secretary Panetta said that in his personal view it would.

"You can't have two different standards just because one country is more powerful than another country," said Senator Webb.

BACKGROUND

In May 2012, Senator Webb introduced bipartisan legislation to restore the proper Constitutional role of Congress in authorizing the use of military force. The Military Humanitarian Operations Act of 2012 would require that the President seek Congressional approval--through expedited procedures--before engaging the military in humanitarian operations where hostile activities are reasonably anticipated, and where no imminent threat to the United States, its military, allies, or citizens is evident. In June 2011, Senator Webb introduced a Joint Resolution with Senator Bob Corker (R-TN) to require the Administration to justify its actions in Libya, to prohibit U.S. troops on the ground, and to call for Congressional authorization of continued operations.

Partial Hearing Transcript
"Next Steps in Syria"
Senate Committee on Foreign Relations Full Committee Hearing
August 1, 2012

Witnesses:

The Honorable Martin Indyk
Vice President and Director of Foreign Policy
Brookings Institution
Washington, DC

The Honorable James Dobbins
Director
International Security and Defense Policy Center RAND Corporation
Washington, DC

Mr. Andrew Tabler
Senior Fellow
Program on Arab Politics at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy
Washington, DC

Senator Webb: Three issues come to mind here listening to the conversations here that have taken place. The first is: when does a regime -- any regime -- lose its legitimacy to the point that the international community decides that something needs to be done? We are talking about Syria today, but I had a conversation with Secretary Panetta in the Armed Services Committee on this point when we were talking about Libya. He had made a statement that any regime that deliberately takes the lives of its own people who are involved in peaceful dissent, loses its legitimacy. And I said, "Would you include China in that category, given the events of Tiananmen? Would that fall into that category?" And he said personally, rather than as policy, he believed that it would.

The second question from watching your discussions today is what red lines actually exist in any of these situations where we might be calling for an intervention?

And the third, which really compelled me to come down here to hear your views, is how is it decided, then? Ambassador, you commented that if you would have an arbitrary line -- if it's 100 or if it's 200 or whatever the line is -- it might confuse the situation even more on the ground. So how is it decided that the United States itself should get involved in these situations?

Chairman Kerry said, "Should this be NATO? Should it be a United Nations Security Council vote? Should it be the encouragement of the Arab League?" And I would say that when it comes to this relatively new concept of humanitarian intervention, that the best way that we should be resolving that question is to put it to a vote of the United States Congress. We never even had a floor debate on Libya. I just think that's wrong. If the Administration had properly put the issue before the Congress, the likelihood is that they would have been supported. But you begin to see, listening to the discussions that have taken place today and the gradations that are involved in the events that we would be looking at in these countries, how important it is that we resolve that with a vote here.

I would like your thoughts on those three points and what seems to me to be missing. Ambassador?

Martin Indyk: I think the Panetta Rule is the right one. When a regime starts firing on its own people it by definition is losing its legitimacy. Has it lost all legitimacy and therefore should step aside is something, again, that's something the people who are affected by this should be the ones to decide that because legitimacy supposedly comes from the people. What does it mean to lose legitimacy? But you are dealing with authoritarian regimes and the people don't get to express themselves through the ballot box. But when you see large-scale demonstrations against the regime, and the hundreds of thousands and millions in the case of Syria all across the country, and the regime responds by opening fire on peaceful protesters then I think you can say, "It walks like a duck." They have lost their legitimacy.

Webb: So if Tiananmen occurred today, with the Chinese government rolling out tanks and killing hundreds -- if not thousands -- of its own people, that it would also fit the Panetta Rule?

Indyk: Yes, I think that's right. As an objective standard, they would have lost legitimacy if they fired on their people in that way.

What are the red lines? Well we went through a lot of the discussion, but I think that use of weapons of mass destruction is a clear red line. Massacres and ethnic cleansing should be a red line. We have already seen some, but they are limited in scope. I am talking about large-scale massacres. There should be a clear red line. How is it decided? Yes, I think you are right that the people's houses should have a decision, should have a say when the nation goes to war. But, in the Libyan case it seems to me that there was a clear and immediate danger that needed to be addressed and there wasn't time to take a vote. One can anticipate the kinds of interventions we have been talking about today and I think there is more time to have that discussion just as I don't think that we should be intervening unless we have the support of the international community with us as well -- both of those things. Ultimately we should be doing those things, but the bottom line is that they shouldn't be holding us up from intervening if it means enforcing those red lines.

Webb: Well, I would submit to you there was plenty of time in Libya. We had months once the initial action was taken. There were a number of us, including Senator Corker and myself, who were asking this to be brought up for debate. The situation we have had with the humanitarian intervention is unique in our history. I just don't think we have resolved this properly in terms of the balance of power between the executive and legislative branches. It is unique because there is not a treaty involved, we are not under attack, we are not under imminent attack, we are not responding to situations where we are rescuing Americans. It is clearly a unilateral decision and in my view -- time not being a factor -- it ought to be brought up here [to Congress].

James Dobbins: As I said in my testimony, I think that with any international intervention, U.S. or otherwise, three questions have to be answered affirmatively before it is going to happen. First of all, do you have an adequate justification, which is part of your question. What's the threshold? Secondly, do you have a prospect of success? And thirdly, do you have sufficient interests engaged to make the costs and risks worthwhile? You have to answer all three of these questions positively. In the Chinese case you might argue that you got the first one. You know, Tiananmen Square might have provided a justification. You certainly had absolutely no prospect of success and your interests would not have compelled U.S. military intervention. So, even if you crossed the first threshold you haven't crossed the other two. Now in terms of what justifies, the international standards have changed. You now have an international standard, which was adopted by a global summit, which is called the Responsibility to Protect. What it says is that governments have a responsibility to protect their citizens and when they fail that responsibility in some serious way, the international community has a right to intervene, to take over that responsibility to protect those citizens. So that's now a global standard, which of course you then debate endlessly in any particular situation. But I think with respect to Libya and now to Syria, most of the world believes that particular threshold has been crossed.

Webb: Well let me just quickly respond to both points you just made. With respect to the Tiananmen situation, the point to be made is if we stand for anything as a country then we would have an obligation to declare those sorts of acts of a magnitude that we would not recognize the validity of that government. I think that is really the point, whether we would intervene directly or not. You can't have two different standards just because one country is more powerful than another country in terms of the validity of a regime.

Dobbins: I think you're confusing recognition with legitimacy--

Webb: I am not confusing either. If a government is so repressive that it deliberately kills its own people -- that's the standard where you say that that government no longer has validity and it doesn't matter how powerful that government is. Secondly, with respect to Responsibility to Protect, I understand the concept. My belief is that when you make that determination, you should be making it in the United States Congress, not by one individual of whichever party who happens to be president.

Dobbins: I don't disagree.


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