Despite claims by NATO’s military command — and President Obama himself — that killing Col. Muammar Qaddafi is not part of their military objective in Libya, they have set about to do just that. On April 30th, in what appears to be an attempt to assassinate Qaddafi through targeted air strikes, NATO missed getting Qaddafi and his wife, but allegedly killed one of Qaddafi’s sons and three grandchildren, a claim that Libyan rebels dispute and remains unconfirmed. Although the son in question happens to be the black sheep of the family and played very little part in the current fighting, the attack raises serious questions about NATO’s unstated commitment to directly effecting regime change in Libya — contrary to both UN authorization and President Obama’s pronouncements on the conflict.
Another NATO strike on April 30th badly damaged a non-military, non-governmental building housing the Libyan Down’s Syndrome Society. NATO is clearly willing to risk destroying civilian buildings, including schools, as part of its unauthorized campaign to take out Qaddafi. Nevertheless, the NATO mission’s operational commander, Lt. Gen. Charles Bouchard, continues to maintain that NATO is only going after clear military targets.
“All NATO’s targets are military in nature,” Bouchard said, “and have been clearly linked to the Qaddafi regime’s systematic attacks on the Libyan population and populated areas. We do not target individuals.” Such denials of the obvious parrot the official US position, which distinguishes between the political goal of seeing Qaddafi go and the more limited “humanitarian” goal of protecting Libya’s civilians from Qaddafi’s forces. However, not everyone in the international coalition is willing to be so coy about the real objective. British Defense Secretary Liam Fox, for example, has said that Qaddafi is a “legitimate target.”
When the United Nations Security Council approved the use of military force in Libya on March 17, 2011, it authorized member states, acting nationally or through regional organizations or arrangements, to “take all necessary measures” to protect civilians under threat of attack in the country. Supporters of Security Council Resolution 1973, including the United States, stressed that the military objective was solely to protect civilians from further harm. There is no authorization to use military force in order to bring about regime change through assassination of Libya’s leader or otherwise. Foreign occupation of Libya in any shape or form is also expressly prohibited.
Initially, NATO, led by US air power, adhered to the limits set by the UN resolution. It intervened just in time to prevent an impending massacre of civilians in the rebel stronghold of Benghazi. It established a no-fly zone and attacked Qaddafi’s ground troops and weaponry to further protect civilians from harm.
However, when the Libyan regime did not immediately collapse and the rebel forces proved incapable of mounting a serious challenge without substantial assistance from the international coalition, NATO upped the ante. It made a deliberate decision to take the side of the rebels in what amounts to a civil war. It is also waging its campaign against the Qaddafi regime in Libya’s most densely populated areas, including the capital of Tripoli, with inevitable civilian casualties from NATO attacks added to the mounting civilian casualties caused by loyalist and rebel forces.
Supporters of NATO’s aggressive campaign against Qaddafi argue that the only way to make sure that civilians are protected is to get rid of the dictator who is harming them. However, this argument is fallacious for both pragmatic and legal reasons.