The Fog of "Humanitarian War" in Libya Threatens Civilians

 In Current Affairs, Middle East

A palpable air of confusion and international infighting dominated the opening days of the Libyan war.  On Sunday, Arab League chief Amr Moussa raised eyebrows when he said: “What is happening in Libya differs from the aim of imposing a no-fly zone, and what we want is the protection of civilians and not shelling more civilians.”  The next day it was claimed he had been speaking for himself.  Moussa wasn’t the only one calling into question the shock-and-awe style opening of the Libyan war. Turkey criticized the strikes, urging the coalition to avoid civilian casualties and forgo a “comprehensive war” like the ones in Iraq and Afghanistan. A Russian government spokesman claimed that 48 civilians were killed. Meanwhile, there was a bit of embarrassing sparing amongst the allies about who should lead the mission. Norway responded by grounding its fighter jets until it was clear who was in charge.

In the early fog of war it’s hard make out exactly what is going on in Libya. No long-term strategy has been articulated and accurate information on civilian casualties is impossible to come by. But the danger is glaringly clear for the civilians caught in the crossfire. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC)  highlighted the risks, “As air strikes in Libya by international forces begin, the ICRC calls upon all parties … to abide strictly by the rules and principles of international humanitarian law… Attacks that directly target the civilian population are strictly prohibited by international humanitarian law.”

The military hardware, institutions, and culture of the 21st century have not caught up with the doctrine of humanitarian intervention. Militaries are, for all their whiz-bang multibillion-dollar hardware, pretty crude tools. They are designed primarily to kill people and blow apart tanks, planes, bridges and buildings. Protecting civilians is quite a different mission. Earlier this month NATO had to apologize for killing a group of Afghans gathering firewood. Even with the best high-tech war-fighting technology, nine innocent boys were mistaken for insurgents. Events like this have become tragically common occurrences in Iraq and Afghanistan. Will the rules of engagement be any different in Libya? What is being done to make sure that we do not harm the people we are trying to protect?

I hope we can avoid a tired debate over whether Libya is Viet Nam or Iraq or Bosnia. Libya is Libya. But that doesn’t mean we escape the ironclad fact that we learn from history or risk repeating it. The historical precedent most worth learning from today may be Kosovo.  In that U.S.-led NATO humanitarian intervention, also aimed at taking out a dictator engaged in brutal repression, NATO forces flew 10,484 bombing sorties. Amnesty International documented how the NATO campaign wound up destroying civilian targets and killing far too many civilians. Civilian deaths were kept low in the early days but over time the campaign intensified. NATO bombing destroyed homes, schools, markets, and factories. At least, five hundred innocent civilians lost their lives at the hands of NATO’s humanitarian mission according to Human Rights Watch estimates. Some analysts argue that the air campaign failed to protect civilians and even accelerated atrocities on the ground.

The real lesson learned is that the civilians killed by NATO died not just because of the so-called “collateral damage” that is the inevitable byproduct of war. Loose rules of engagement and the tendency for war to escalate pushed NATO to engage in violations of international humanitarian law. Illegitimate and questionable targets were attacked. What assurances do we have that NATO and the U.S. will avoid repeating these mistakes? Watching the explosions from the third night of bombardment of Tripoli, a densely packed city of over a million people, one has a right to wonder.

I hope doubters of the Libyan action, like myself, are proven wrong by a swift and successful end to this war. The Libyan people deserve to live in freedom and in peace. But whether one supports or opposes this intervention, we can all insist that this time the militaries involved do a better job of protecting civilians. The U.S. Congress, with its constitutionally mandated war powers, has a duty to get involved now. Congress should ask the tough questions about the U.S. role, the cost in lives and U.S. taxpayer dollars, the rules of engagement, the end-game, and the overall strategy. Anything less does a great disservice to the brave Libyans we all want to see protected.

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