By Dennis Sadowski
WASHINGTON (CNS) – NATO’s military campaign against Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi is giving rise to concerns that the effort’s goals remain unclear and will likely lead to a lengthy standoff between the longtime autocrat and rebel forces with innocent civilians caught in the middle.
The concerns revolve around whether the campaign is meant primarily to protect the rebels and their civilian supporters from indiscriminate attacks by troops loyal to Gadhafi or to remove the Libyan leader in the hope that democratic reforms follow.
Guiding the discussion is a relatively new concept in international relations characterized as the responsibility to protect – R2P in diplomatic shorthand. The concept, based on ethical concerns, has evolved over the past 20 years following strife-ridden periods in Somalia and Bosnia-Herzegovina in which civilian casualties mounted during internal conflicts as the world stood by idly.
The responsibility to protect innocent parties was the key concern identified in U.N. Security Council Resolution 1973 adopted March 17 authorizing multilateral intervention in Libya after Gadhafi threatened opponents of his regime — civilians and rebels alike — with massive retaliation. It is the first such resolution rooted in the responsibility to protect principle.
The response by NATO partners under the resolution has exclusively encompassed military action, primarily the bombing of key military and strategic targets and maintaining a no-fly zone.
Picking up on the principle of the responsibility to protect, Bishop Howard J. Hubbard of Albany, N.Y., chairman of the U.S. bishops’ Committee on International Justice and Peace, stressed in a March 24 letter to National Security Adviser Thomas Donilon that the U.S. must ensure the use of force is “proportionate to the goal of protecting civilians.”
Meanwhile, Pope Benedict XVI and church leaders in Libya have called for a cease-fire followed by negotiations. Both are unlikely under current conditions.
Along the way, however, leaders of NATO nations – President Barack Obama included – began calling publicly for Gadhafi’s ouster. Those calls pushed the Libyan leader to continue assaults on rebel strongholds and have given Gadhafi no reason to negotiate a settlement.
As the four-month-old rebellion continued, NATO announced it was extending its mission past its original June 27 mandate through September. The alliance said it was sending “a clear message to the Gadhafi regime” that the alliance was “determined to continue our operation to protect the people of Libya.”
Gerard Powers, director of Catholic Peacebuilding Studies at the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame, questioned NATO’s actions if its eventual goal is Gadhafi’s removal.
He told Catholic News Service that while the U.N. resolution was necessary because Gadhafi’s threats meant that Libya “forfeited its right to be protected by norms of sovereignty and nonintervention,” NATO’s exclusive dependence on military action posed a moral dilemma.
“If the military objective is really regime change, that’s hard to justify in Catholic approaches to humanitarian intervention,” he said.
Any military action must meet just-war criteria, especially the requirements of just cause and that such action must be taken by legitimate authority, Power explained.
Rather than military intervention, Powers called for nonmilitary steps including sanctions, political pressure and diplomacy.
“In Libya, we have a disconnect between ends and means,” Powers said “Airstrikes seem to be a tactic impersonating strategy, and without a viable strategy, military might easily masquerades as humanitarianism.
“NATO is undoubtedly going to great lengths to avoid civilian casualties, but the questions remain: Is a war fought with cruise missiles, drones and bombers, with a priority being zero casualties on NATO’s side, consistent with that standard of care owed Libyan civilians? Can airstrikes alone protect civilians without putting at risk the very people NATO purports to protect?” he asked.
Marie Dennis, director of the Maryknoll Office of Global Concerns in Washington, said the responsibility to protect principle is worthy to pursue, but dangerous at the same time. She expressed concern the concept can be used by some nations to justify intervening in the internal affairs of smaller, weaker countries.
She questioned whether diplomatic routes were explored sufficiently before the NATO airstrikes began in Libya.
“The essential instinct of responsibility to protect is a good one in that situation,” she said. “It’s just that we need to find really clear ways to identify the situations and clearly limit the space it creates for military action.”
Two other observers said, however, that military action was appropriate, especially given Gadhafi’s willingness to use any means necessary to attack opponents.
Unlike Tunisian President Zine el Abidine Ben Ali and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, who left office earlier this year after decades in power when nonviolent revolutions erupted, Gadhafi is focused on remaining in power at all costs, said John P. Entelis, professor of political science in the Middle East Studies program at Fordham University.
“When you have regimes such as Gadhafi’s, it’s very hard to predict what will happen,” Entelis said. “The leaders in Tunisia and Egypt saw the handwriting on the wall. Gadhafi is out for blood.”
Elliott Abrams, senior fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and a key foreign policy official under presidents Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, told CNS the U.S. role, coordinated through NATO, was necessary.
“The notion that there might be a massacre was not far-fetched, particularly given some of the statements that Gadhafi and other regime officials were making. Then you’re in a real responsibility to protect situation where if you do nothing there could thousands and thousands of deaths,” Abrams said.
“The question is, does this case fit the responsibility to protect,” he explained. “In this case, it seems to me it does because there is such a desire of Libyans to be rid of him, and it’s reasonable to think that there will be a lot of bloodletting if he stays.”