In tonight’s speech,  President Obama had a steep mountain to climb. He needed to explain the United States role in enforcing the United Nations  Libyan No-Fly Zone to the American people.  Did he accomplish this goal?  There will be no clear or single interpretation of this speech. I am confident that if you questioned each of the 15 moral theologians on this website – you would receive 15 different interpretations and readings of both the text and the intervention in Libya itself.

And so, to begin discussion – I would like to highlight  one section that jumped out at me in tonight’s speech:

It is true that America cannot use our military wherever repression occurs. And given the costs and risks of intervention, we must always measure our interests against the need for action. But that cannot be an argument for never acting on behalf of what’s right. In this particular country – Libya; at this particular moment, we were faced with the prospect of violence on a horrific scale. We had a unique ability to stop that violence: an international mandate for action, a broad coalition prepared to join us, the support of Arab countries, and a plea for help from the Libyan people themselves. We also had the ability to stop Gaddafi’s forces in their tracks without putting American troops on the ground.

A few years ago, I attended a symposium at Harvard Law School on the Responsibility to Protect. Throughout the day, I was struck by the apprehension and silence in the room every time someone mentioned the words “humanitarian intervention.” Rwanda, Bosnia, Kosovo, Somalia…the 1990s simultaneously created both a fear of intervention and a profound sense of guilt over inaction in Rwanda.  In particular, the human rights community largely abandoned the language of “humanitarian intervention” and began developing what is now known as “the responsibility to protect doctrine.”  The “Summary of the Responsibility to Protect: The Report of the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS) concluded:

the debate about intervention for human protection purposes should focus not on the ‘right to intervene’ but on the ‘responsibility to protect.’ . . . the responsibility to protect implies an evaluation of the [human rights] issues from the point of view of those seeking or needing support, rather than those who may be considering intervention

A favorite of the current UN Secretary General, R2P is a nascent doctrine, which requires significant research by  human rights lawyers, philosophers, and theologians.  Its laudable intent is to rethink the concept of sovereignty and intervention in light of the state-sponsored atrocities committed against a domestic population – a reality just war theory is not equipped to handle.

Returning to Obama’s speech, I was struck at the extent to which he appeared to be trying to hit the markers for R2P, including the plea for help from the Libyan people. And, in my opinion, beginning to offer the clearest defense of maintaining the no-fly zone without a mandate for regime change – defining the intervention as providing the space for political movement among the people of Libya. (Whether this is realistic or not, remains to be seen.)

I do not have a firm conclusion on the justice and prudence of our engagement in Libya; however, I do think there is a need to evaluate this through the lens of R2P and not Just War Theory.  Ultimately, the President did not give an answer to my pressing question  – Why Libya? And not, Sudan? Ivory Coast? Bahrain?  As an ethical framework, R2P is emerging, hotly debated, and remains shrouded in ambiguity. I am not certain a clear answer to my question currently exists.

As a moral theologian who writes about human rights and R2P, what am I taking away from the President’s speech?  – A charge and challenge to think more systematically about how R2P is developing and what Catholic moral theology can offer to the development of this important ethical framework.