Our mission in Libya

Byron York at the Washington Examiner brings out the absurdity of America’s mission to “protect civilians” in a civil war in a foreign country in which the rebels are all, essentially, civilians. As you read this, consider the principle that guides such interventions. We are basically saying that war is prohibited, if it involves harm to “civilians.” We are setting up—indeed, we already have set up, going back to Yugoslavia in the 1990s—a global regime in which no war will be allowed to reach a natural conclusion, with one side defeating the other. Instead, each war will be frozen forever in place, by us, as happened in Bosnia, with the underlying conflict never resolved, except, in some instances, in the direction of the interests most hostile to the West, as happened in Kosovo.

Here the particular mess is that the American administration wants Gaddafi to be ousted, but, under the UN resolution that authorizes its actions, is barred from exerting force to make that happen. The mission given to the U.S. armed forces—a quintessentially liberal mission—is only to “protect civilians,” which means stopping Khadaffi’s army from attacking the rebels, but not defeating it. So (as another Examiner article by Sarah Carter by brings out), a likely outcome will be a stalemate, with Kaddafi remaining in power.

U.S. pilots face tight restraints in Libyan war

The mission is to protect civilians,” says Gen. Carter Ham, the man in command of U.S. attacks on Libya. “If civilians are attacked, we have an obligation under the [U.N.] Security Council resolution and the mission that’s been given to me to protect those civilians.”

It seems clear enough; after all, Resolution 1973, the basis for American action in Libya, calls for “all necessary measures … to protect civilians.” But listen closely to U.S. officials, and you’ll see they’re having a difficult time figuring out who deserves protection and who doesn’t. [LA replies: in fact, as you read the story, you will find out that it’s not that difficult and confusing. The mission comes down to using force to prevent Kadaffi’s army from waging war against the rebels.]

At first, the mission seemed relatively simple, although not exactly easy: Use American air power to establish a no-fly zone to prevent Libyan strongman Moammar Gadhafi from using his planes to crush opposition forces and kill civilians. But the United Nations coalition decided to go beyond creating and maintaining a no-fly zone to actually attacking Gadhafi’s ground forces. When Vice Adm. Bill Gortney, director of the Joint Staff, was asked if Gadhafi’s troops “are a legitimate target of this coalition,” he answered: “If they are moving and advancing on to the opposition forces in Libya, yes, we will take them under attack.”

Once committed to hitting enemy forces on the ground, though, U.S. leaders faced a problem built into the U.N. mandate to protect civilians. Are opposition fighters civilians? Are they military? What about civilians who are loyal to Gadhafi? Do they warrant protection, too? Gen. Ham, speaking to reporters from his headquarters in Stuttgart, Germany, on Monday, had some difficulty sorting it out.

“It’s a very problematic situation,” Ham said. “It’s not a clear distinction, because we’re not talking about a regular military force. Many in the opposition truly are civilians, and they are trying to protect their homes, their families, their businesses, and in doing that some of them have taken up arms. But they are basically civilians.”

So they are protected by American pilots. But what about the rest of the anti-Gadhafi forces? “There are also those in the opposition that have armored vehicles and have heavy weapons,” Ham continued. “Those parts of the opposition, I would argue, are no longer covered under the protect-civilians clause.”

The bottom line: The United States will protect Libyan rebels if they unarmed or lightly armed. If those rebels are heavily armed, no.

When it came to explaining the mission, Ham had a much easier time of it than State Department spokesman Mark Toner. Meeting reporters in Foggy Bottom on Monday, Toner had just finished stressing the responsibility to protect civilians when a reporter asked, “Will the coalition act to protect civilians who support Gadhafi?”

“I’m sorry,” Toner stammered. “Do you mean, we always, we, in what way, I’m unclear about … ” Toner finally collected himself and declared that all civilians should be protected.

If government officials are having trouble describing how the mission works, just think of the crews on board American warplanes over Libya. As Gen. Ham described it, part of their job is to divine the intent of the Libyans they see on the ground thousands of feet below them.

Ham was asked what U.S. forces are instructed to do when they encounter pro-Gadhafi military units that are heavily armed but aren’t actually attacking civilians. “What we look for is, to the degree that we can, to discern intent,” Ham explained. He described a hypothetical situation in which an American pilot spotted a Libyan unit south of Benghazi. If the pilot determined the unit was moving toward the city, he could attack. If he determined the unit was setting up some sort of position, he could also attack. But if he determined the unit was moving away, then he couldn’t attack. “There’s no simple answer,” Ham said. “Sometimes these are situations that brief much better at headquarters than they do in the cockpit of an aircraft.”

Throughout the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, American military forces have been called on to make sometimes painstaking judgments about when to exercise force. Restrictive rules of engagement have led to situations in which Americans died rather than take action that could have resulted in civilian casualties. And yet civilian casualties happened anyway, because they always do in war.

Now, American forces are once again operating under complicated restraints in a volatile situation where it’s hard to tell who’s who. No wonder political leaders of both parties are asking President Obama for a more careful and detailed explanation of how this is supposed to end.

- end of initial entry -

N. writes:

For years it has been somewhat trite to observe that the U.S. has become the “policeman of the world,” although there is a lot of truth to that claim. Reading what the NATO and French fighter/ bomber pilots have been ordered to do, it occurs to me that now the mission is “referee to the world.”

That means fighting men will have to make ever more minute, head-of-a-pin decisions regarding who is and who is not, at any given moment, an “unlawful combatant” vs. a “lawful combatant” vs. “civilian.”

Is it just me, or is it an expansion of the therapy-state writ large?

Posted by Lawrence Auster at March 22, 2011 10:36 AM | Send

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