Remember R2P? Not to be confused with R2-D2 (a robotic character in the "Star Wars" movies), "Responsibility to Protect" was an international "norm" proposed by United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan following the genocide in Rwanda in 1994 and the mass murders in the Bosnian town of Srebrenica a year later. The idea was for the "international community" to assume an obligation to intervene, militarily if necessary, to prevent or halt mass atrocities.
Why has R2P not been invoked to stop the slaughters being carried out in Syria and Iraq? Why isn't it mentioned in regard to the Syrian-Kurdish city of Kobani, which, as I write this, may soon be overrun by barbarians fighting for what they call the Islamic State?
Here's the story: In 2009, Mr. Annan's successor, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, issued a report on "implementing" R2P. The foreign-policy establishment cheered. For example, Louise Arbour, a former U.N. high commissioner for human tights, called R2P "the most important and imaginative doctrine to emerge on the international scene for decades." Anne-Marie Slaughter, an academic who served under Hillary Clinton at the State Department, went further, hailing R2P as "the most important shift in our conception of sovereignty since the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648."
In 2011, President Obama cited R2P as his primary justification for using military force to prevent Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi from attacking the opposition stronghold of Benghazi.
If that was the apogee of R2P, the nadir was not far off. The intervention in Libya has led to chaos and bloodshed with no end in sight. Meanwhile, in Syria, four years ago this spring, Bashar Assad brutally cracked down on peaceful protesters.
Mr. Obama made Mr. Assad's removal American policy but overruled the recommendation of his national security advisers to assist Syrian nationalist opposition groups. Civil war erupted. Self-proclaimed jihadis from around the world flocked to Syria to fight on behalf of the Sunnis. The opposition was soon dominated by the al Nusra Front, an al Qaeda affiliate, and the Islamic State (also known as ISIS or ISIL), whose leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, broke with al Qaeda and, audaciously, declared himself caliph, or supreme leader.
As for Mr. Assad, he is supported by the Islamic Republic of Iran, deploying both its elite Quds Force (designated in 2007 by the U.S. government as a terrorist organization) and Hezbollah, a Lebanon-based militia loyal to Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Russia also backs Mr. Assad, even supplying on-the-ground military intelligence specialists.
With no U.N.-approved R2P effort to rescue the innocent civilians of the region from these brutal forces, the death toll in Syria and Iraq has topped 200,000, and the number of refugees is in the millions.
Failed experiments, like crises, should not go to waste. Among the lessons to be learned from the R2P debacle: First, the notion of an international community that can prevent or halt mass atrocities is a chimera. If such work is going to get done, the United States has to do it, perhaps supported by a coalition of the willing and, with few exceptions, not particularly able. Second, it's ludicrous to propose that the U.N. Security Council — whose permanent members include neo-Soviet Russia and anti-democratic China — should be vested with the authority to pass judgment on the legitimacy of such missions. Third, American power should be used primarily in pursuit of American interests. Sometimes that will include humanitarian interventions, but that's a decision for Americans to make.
This, too, should be clear: While the Islamic State is currently attracting the most attention, it is the Islamic Republic of Iran — which has been using proxies to kill Americans on and off for the past 35 years — that could soon have nuclear weapons as well as missiles to deliver them to targets anywhere in the world. Hezbollah and other terrorist groups offer an alternative means of delivery. Iran's radical Shia rulers are more sophisticated than the Sunni jihadis displaying disembodied heads on pikes. However, their goals differ little from those of their rivals.
In response to this dire and deteriorating situation, Mr. Obama should be instructing his advisers to present him with a range of strategic options. I'd recommend conceptualizing the global conflict not as disconnected "overseas contingency operations," and not as akin to World War II, but more like the Cold War. That is to say, the United States should plan for a long, low-intensity struggle. In particular, we should support those willing to fight the jihadis who threaten them.
Economic weapons can be powerful if used correctly, which has not been the case in the past. For example, though sanctions brought Iran's rulers to the negotiating table, premature relief from sanctions pressure has encouraged Iranian intransigence as the talks proceeded.
Also long overdue is a serious war of ideas — it's insufficient to leave that to Bill Maher and Ben Affleck on HBO. Bottom line: We are not really engaged in a conflict against "violent extremism" or even "terrorism." What we're confronting are ideologies derived from fundamentalist readings of Islamic scripture. Proponents of those ideologies stress the supremacy of one religion — much as communists stressed the supremacy of one class, and Nazis of one race. There is no reason to suppose that saying this clearly, rather than obfuscating, will radicalize Muslims not already favorably inclined toward killing infidels.
Our aim should be, to borrow a phrase from Mr. Obama, to "degrade and eventually defeat" jihadism. Nothing is more imperative than preventing Iran's rulers from taking the next, short steps toward a nuclear-weapons capability that they clearly intend to use to threaten not just their neighbors, but also Americans for decades to come. For an American president, this is where the R2P needs to begin.