Working towards peace and sustainability

Not an Easy Call

By Mark Haim, Director, Mid-Missouri Peaceworks
March 19, 2011

Eight years ago today, March 19, 2003, the U.S. government launched a war of aggression against Iraq.  This war was not defensive and it was not sanctioned by the United Nations, therefore it was an illegal war, and those who ordered American troops into battle were guilty of a Crime Against Peace. That is the highest form of war crime according to the Nuremberg Principles, which our government was instrumental in establishing. It was also illegal according to the United Nations Charter, established as a means of ensuring order at the end of World War II, and, as a treaty ratified by the U.S. Senate, the highest law of the land in our nation.

Today, the Obama administration authorized the use of massive force against the military installations of the state of Libya. Tomahawk cruise missiles rained down death and destruction on Libyan bases and the troops stationed there. Was this action legitimate? Justified? Legal? People of good heart and peaceful intentions will come to different conclusions on this.

Clearly, there are significant differences between the current use of force and the “Shock and Awe” assault on Iraq eight years ago. To begin with, Libya is in the midst of a civil conflict, with revolutionaries attempted to unseat the long-ruling Qaddafi dictatorship. And the regime using its military superiority to fight back, with significant loss of life, including civilians.

There is much sympathy around the world, and here in our country, for those throughout North Africa and the Middle East participating what’s being called by some the Arab Spring. We have celebrated the partial victories of the democracy movements in Egypt and Tunisia, and recoiled at the brutal repression of activists in Bahrain and Libya. Certainly none within the ranks of Peaceworks or the peace movement as a whole is a fan of Muammar Qaddafi.

The fact that our sympathies lie with the insurgents does not answer the questions raised above, is U.S. military action against Qaddafi’s military legitimate, justified or legal?

The strongest rationale legitimating the use of force is that it was authorized by the U.N. Security Council. Proponents also point out that the opposition forces have requested the establishment of a no-fly zone, and thus they claim this is not an unwelcome intrusion on Libya’s sovereignty.

On the other side there are some strong counter-arguments. It is not clear that the U.N. has the authority to intervene in civil wars, having been established to deal with international, not intra-national, conflicts. Thus, this use of force is of questionable legal authority. Moreover, it is not at all clear that just war doctrine criteria have been satisfied. Particularly, it seems that not all non-violent alternatives were exhausted.

Further, it appears that this intervention has been orchestrated not primarily to protect the life and limb of civilians, but rather to establish what is referred to as “stability” in a geopolitically strategic, oil-rich nation. Similar steps have not been taken to intervene in similar civil conflicts in other nations such as the Ivory Coast or Sri Lanka.

As a practical matter, it is clearly possible that the use of U.S. and other NATO forces will lead to the loss of life and limb, without leading to a quick resolution to the conflict. It is reasonably likely that Qaddafi’s regime will be able to hold onto power in the western part of Libya, while the rebels maintain control in the east. There then may be a protracted military involvement with the potential for pressure to get involved more deeply, perhaps arming, training and advising the insurgents.

As international relations scholar Phyllis Bennis points out, the U.N. has authorized more than a no-fly zone. The resolution approved calls for taking “all necessary measures… to protect civilian populated areas under threat of attack…” Bennis goes on to say:  “The phrase ‘all necessary measures’ is understood to include air strikes, ground, and naval strikes to supplement the call for a no-fly zone designed to keep Qaddafi’s air force out of the skies.” This may well be the first step down a long road.

It should also be noted that U.S. military officials were reported on CNN as saying that attacks would be focused on at least some of Qaddafi’s ground forces as well as air bases and anti-aircraft installations. This means more casualties and likely more civilian lives lost in what the Pentagon calls “collateral damage.”

After the U.N. resolution was passed, Qaddafi’s government announced a cease fire and indicated that it would not use its air force to attack the rebels. It would have been most prudent at this point to press for enforcement of a cease fire by indicating that there would be no use of force on the part of the U.S. and NATO if the Qaddafi regime kept its word. This was an unfortunate, missed opportunity.

Peaceworks urges an immediate ceasefire and efforts to bring all parties to talks for negotiation of an end to the fighting.

We also urge all of our members and supporters to become informed about all aspects of the current situation and to make their voices heard, both by President Obama and other elected officials, as well as by us here at Peaceworks. We know that our members will have very varied opinions and, as we said above, we recognize that people of conscience will reach different conclusions on this. We look forward to hearing your points of view.