Even before the signal was given to launch 110 Tomahawk cruise missiles from US ships and submarines in the Mediterranean on Saturday, questions were being raised about what UN coalition forces wanted to accomplish with military action against Muammar Gaddafi, and whether the measures authorized by the UN were sufficient to allow the coalition to fulfill its objectives.
If it is, as President Obama claims, a mission to “protect civilians,” then the war aims of the coalition are, for all practical purposes, in conflict with the United Nations’ resolution authorizing force. Resolution 1973 states that members are “to take all necessary measures … to protect civilians and civilian populated areas under threat of attack in the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya, including Benghazi[.]” However, the resolution excludes “a foreign occupation force of any form on any part of Libyan territory.” The question then becomes how can the UN protect civilians from Gaddafi if regime change is not specifically spelled out in its instructions?
Micah Zenko, writing at Foreign Policy.com, places the question directly on the horns of the dilemma. “[E]veryone who supports this maximalist objective [regime change] has approved only minimalist tactics.” Indeed, President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton have both stated clearly that Gaddafi “must go,” and that he has lost his legitimacy to rule. This has been echoed by all the major European coalition partners, although the Arab League stopped short of calling for Gaddafi’s ouster in its resolution requesting UN assistance for Libya.
How is this to be accomplished without putting “boots on the ground” and physically deposing the dictator?
In fact, the only way to “protect civilians” in Libya will be to create a physical buffer between Gaddafi’s army and innocent civilians who may be targeted in any post-civil war crackdown. No-fly zones and bombing alone won’t be effective against the kind of brutality already shown by the Libyan leader, as his forces have moved back into towns and cities that were once occupied by the rebels.
Strategy Page reports that, as the army recaptures these areas, foreign mercenaries move in and begin a systematic cleansing of opposition to the regime. It is unknown how many Libyans have already been killed, but the promise from Gaddafi to “show no mercy” to residents in Benghazi who oppose him gives us a taste of what would be in store for the Libyan people unless the dictator is dethroned.
Zenko argues that the UN strategy is “playing directly into Gaddafi’s hands” because the Libyan dictator doesn’t need his air force to defeat the rebels in Benghazi and he needn’t worry about a UN-led ground force moving in and assisting the opposition. Early reports suggest that the coalition has had some success in halting the offensive of Gaddafi-loyalists on Benghazi, and the rebels have resumed an advance on a key junction 60 miles from the unofficial rebel capital.
But trouble is brewing within the rickety coalition of Western nations and Arab governments. Amr Moussa, former chairman of the Arab League, issued a statement decrying the deaths of civilians as a result of the bombing, saying, “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 the bombardment of more civilians.” He has called for a meeting of the Arab League on Monday to discuss the matter.