The Libya Intervention: A Just War Unjustly Disowned

The Libya Intervention: A Just War Unjustly Disowned

It is said that victory has a thousand fathers, but defeat is an orphan. In the case of NATO’s military intervention in Libya six years ago, both sides of the adage seem to apply.

In March 2011, an alliance spearheaded by Britain, France, and the United States launched air strikes in Libya to halt a manmade humanitarian disaster underway. Muammar Qaddafi, a tyrant and terrorist who had ruled the North African petro-state for more than four decades, had mobilized his military to mercilessly crush protestors inspired by the Arab Spring uprisings in neighboring Tunisia and Egypt. Qaddafi’s bloodthirsty rhetoric ordering the crackdown displayed the hallmarks of genocide. He dehumanized his opponents as “rats” and “alien riffraff,” and vowed to “cleanse Libya, inch by inch, house by house, individual by individual, so that the country is purified from the unclean.” Qaddafi trained his verbal and kinetic attacks on Benghazi, blitzing armor and artillery to storm the renegade city. By the ides of March, an indiscriminant massacre seemed imminent.

In response, and with uncharacteristic haste, the UN Security Council condemned the Qaddafi regime’s “gross and systematic violation of human rights” and authorized “all necessary measures” to fulfill “the responsibility to protect” innocent civilians. Even veto-wielding, intervention-wary members China and Russia condoned military action by abstaining from the vote on UNSCR 1973. NATO seized upon this endorsement to scramble its jets and launch air strikes that saved Benghazi and its inhabitants, and forced Qaddafi and his minions on their heels. The allies soon ruled the skies over Libya, but because they had ruled out deploying ground troops, the Libyan regime maintained much of its military muscle. A defiant Qaddafi pledged “never to submit” and continued his attacks. In response, NATO extended its air sorties westward to thwart the dictator’s deadly designs. After months of air cover from the alliance, the rebellion succeeded in toppling the tyranny.

In the immediate aftermath of Libya’s liberation, President Obama celebrated the intervention’s success. It achieved its mission to “save lives” and “demonstrate[d] what the international community can achieve when we stand together as one,” declared the president. The British and French leadership similarly boasted. Even Donald Trump, the White House then but a glimmer in his eye, supported the victorious war effort, saying on its eve that “we should do on a humanitarian basis [sic] immediately go into Libya to stop the horrible carnage.” Some even christened NATO’s operation an “immaculate intervention.” The Libyan war emerged as a favorite son, its paternity plural.

On its sixth birthday, however, the Libyan war’s fathers have all but disowned it. The former American president has called it his “biggest mistake,” and the current president has derided it as a “disaster.” In a report issued last September, the UK’s House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee concluded that the intervention resulted in Libya’s “political and economic collapse” and held Prime Minister Cameron “ultimately responsible for the failure to develop a coherent Libya strategy.” Other commentators have branded it a “debacle” and “calamity.” These latter-day, foul-weather critics point to the failing post-war state Libya has become to justify their harsh reevaluation of the humanitarian intervention itself. Disappointed by its deformities, those who sired the war have abandoned it. History is being rewritten to turn the Libyan war from victory to defeat, from offspring to orphan.

This bastardization of NATO’s war in Libya, however, is a miscarriage of justice. By most accounts, it was a just war, complying with the essential strictures of the ancient tradition of moral inquiry. St. Augustine, a Christian church father whose bishopric included parts of modern Libya, first defined the core ad bellum criteria of just war doctrine sixteen hundred years ago; St. Aquinas later distilled these as legitimate authority, just cause and right intention. The Libyan war met these three essential criteria. NATO’s authority was surely legitimate, as the UN vote confirmed and the absence of challenge afterwards affirmed. Its cause was just, rooted in the responsibility to protect innocent lives, as the resolution stated, and to reverse a grave injustice. And its intention was right. Although the allies undoubtedly had mixed motives, the impetus for intervening was fundamentally humanitarian. The critical House of Commons report, which argued that the humanitarian threat was “overstated” and the NATO operations ultimately “opportunistic,” nonetheless found that “policymakers may have attached undue weight to their…memories of the appalling events at Srebrenica,” the Serb massacre of Bosnians on NATO’s watch a generation before. If anything, the allies’ intentions were too right.

Moral authorities voiced their support for the intervention at the time as well. The Roman Catholic Church, historic custodians of the just war tradition, all but blessed NATO’s military intervention. Citing Pope Benedict XVI’s appeal to leaders to “concern themselves above all with the safety and well-being of the citizens” of Libya, the influential Italian bishops conference asserted that “the Gospel shows us the duty to intervene to save those in need” and said the allies were waging the air war for “noble humanitarian” reasons. The U.S. Conference of Bishops echoed their brothers’ tacit support in a letter to the American National Security Advisor on the eve of the air strikes. They argued that the intervention “appears to meet this criterion [of just cause] in our judgment.” It also affirmed that NATO was operating under legitimate authority, in accord with the just war tradition.

Protestant authorities similarly embraced the intervention. As Georgetown professor Shaun Casey, a leading Methodist ethicist and later a special advisor to the Secretary of State, noted at the time, “There actually is a large amount of support among theologians, philosophers and ethicists, that this is a just intervention.” Richard Land, a former outspoken leader of the Southern Baptist Convention, declared the cause just, taking issue only with the legitimacy of the United Nations to authorize the war. Endorsement by the global body is insufficient, in his view; only the U.S. Congress can legitimately authorize the use of American force. (Interestingly, Land’s insistence on Congressional authorization was notably absent from his later criticisms of President Obama’s inaction in Syria.)

The intervention was not above criticism, and far from immaculate. NATO was accused of effectively choosing sides in the conflict by selectively enforcing its arms embargo to favor the rebels. More damning were charges that the alliance manipulated its mandate to morph the mission from humanitarian relief to one of regime change. And the political fallout from the war was certainly discouraging. After holding democratic elections a year after the war, Libya again descended into civil war, leading to a proliferation of arms hidden by Qaddafi and to the seizing of a beachhead in Libya by ISIS and other international terrorist groups.

However, elevating these criticisms to a level commensurate with the core criteria of legitimate authority, just cause, and right intention is counter to the just war tradition and fails to discredit NATO’s intervention. Recalling the just war tradition’s evolution, eminent just war scholar and Providence contributing editor James Turner Johnson distinguishes the three “deontological,” or duty-based, criteria of legitimate authority, just cause, and right intention, from the “prudential” criteria of proportionality, last resort, and probability of success. Oxford professor and another Providence contributing editor Nigel Biggar concurs with Johnson’s analysis, asserting that the deontological criteria are “clearly decisive,” while the prudential criteria are less so.

This two-tiered understanding of the just war tradition implies that its prudential principles override its deontological ones only in extraordinary circumstances. In other words, the impacts must be wholly and predictably disproportionate, the probability of failure beyond reasonable doubt, and/or the possibility of a timely diplomatic resolution clearly evident to invalidate an intervention whose cause is just, authority legitimate, and intention right. Assigning equal weight to both categories favors the prudential criteria, which are necessarily based on estimates of future behavior and therefore unprovable in advance, over the deontological, which must be established beforehand and therefore subject to a higher burden of proof. Failing to assign greater weight to the deontological criteria thus skews the scales of the just war tradition towards a bias for cautionary inaction. As Johnson has argued, appealing to the prudential criteria first not only inverts classic just war reasoning, it “perverts the purpose of the just war idea,” tending towards “crypto-pacifism” meant to “avoid the use of armed force as itself always an evil.”

The House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee exhibited this insidious if unintentional tendency in its retrospective report on the Libya intervention. While conceding that policymakers are often forced to act upon imperfect intelligence under pressure of events, its “subsequent analysis” revealed that the “immediate threat to civilians had been exaggerated.” This judgment hung in part on evidence that approximately one percent of the corpses found in Tripoli’s morgues after Qaddafi’s initial crackdown were women. “This disparity between male and female casualties suggested the regime forces…did not indiscriminately attack civilians.” Such circumstantial evidence is hardly compelling, however, and pales against the forensics collected by the UN Human Rights Council’s International Commission of Inquiry in Libya. In a comprehensive report issued one year after the war commenced, the Commission concluded that Qaddafi’s forces committed “crimes against humanity and war crimes” within a “systematic attack against a civilian population.” Among the most vivid examples it cited of atrocities committed by the Libyan military took place at a Boy Scout camp in Al Qalaa. Here, dozens of men and boys were tortured before being blindfolded, executed, and dumped in a mass grave. No morgues. No females. No atrocity?

The magnitude of the humanitarian disaster averted by the NATO intervention is inherently uncertain. This is the “timeliness paradox,” as Tom Malinowski of Human Rights Watch dubbed it. Contrasting NATO’s rapid reaction in Libya to its costly ambivalence in Bosnia a decade before, he observed that leaders “get more credit for stopping atrocities after they begin than for preventing them before they get out of hand.” “The sacking of Benghazi was the proverbial dog that didn’t bark,” he added. Nevertheless, if the scale of the death and destruction Qaddafi intended are speculative, the rate at which his forces were executing such orders is not. Immediately prior to NATO’s intervention, killings at the hands of Libya’s forces rose approximately tenfold, to more than 1,000. Perhaps the most compelling evidence of a massacre in the making comes from the Libyans themselves, approximately 100,000 of whom—men, women, and children—fled to Egypt as the regime’s forces hurtled towards Benghazi. They certainly took Qaddafi’s rhetoric seriously, and did not view the “immediate threat” as “exaggerated.”

Regardless, if we were to stipulate that the humanitarian threat was less than purported and NATO’s air strikes were more than required, the critique would concern proportionately, not just cause, legitimate authority, or right intention. This prudential concern, however, does not outweigh the strong deontological defense of the intervention. Ultimately, in preventing a full-fledged humanitarian crisis and sparing innocent civilians Qaddafi’s wrath, the allies waged a just war in Libya. Their overreach during the air war and under-resourcing of the reconstruction effort afterwards does not nullify this moral victory, contrary to critics’ claims.

One such critic was conservative commentator Charles Krauthammer, who ridiculed President Obama at the time for waging a “professor’s war” in Libya based on “paper multilateralism.” “Good God,” he exasperated, “If you go to take Vienna, take Vienna. If you’re not prepared to do so, better then to stay home and do nothing.” Really? It is doubtful that the men, women, and children of Benghazi facing torture and death at the hands of a bloodthirsty tyrant but for NATO’s intervention would agree. Had the alliance stayed home and done nothing, innocent Libyan civilians trapped in their homes would likely have been reduced to nothing.

Suggestions beforehand that the intervention should have been aborted, or afterwards that it should be abandoned, are based on a cowardly consequentialism that overlooks not only the morality of the underlying cause, but also the atrocities NATO’s actions surely averted. Righting this unjust reading of history is imperative; the stakes in securing the Libyan war effort’s legitimacy are not small. Discrediting this humanitarian intervention threatens to undermine future ones, and to embolden would-be war criminals who detect a weakness of will by the international community. For the sake of future victims of crimes against humanity, the United States and our allies should reclaim the Libyan intervention and take full custody of the moral victory that it was.

Matt Gobush served on the staff of the National Security Council in the Clinton White House, the U.S. Department of Defense, the U.S. Senate, and the U.S. House of Representatives International Relations Committee. He also served as chairman of the Episcopal Church’s Standing Commission on Anglican and International Peace with Justice Concerns. He currently works in the private sector and lives in Dallas, Texas with his wife and three internationally adopted children.

Photo Credit: BM-21 Grad multiple rocket launcher of the Libyan army destroyed on the south-western outskirts of Benghazi by French airstrike during Opération Harmattan’s first attack wave on March 19, 2011. By Bernd Brincken, via Wikimedia Commons.

Enjoyed the article? Keep Providence going!

  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.
  • Neelam Javaid

    If NATO was so concerned about civilian deaths can you explain the 60, 000 bombing sorties it conducted destroying water supplies, shopping centres, schools and other forms of infrastructure. Thousands of civilians were killed dwarfing those numbers you claim to be at risk. Why did you overlook the millions of citizens who came out in support of Gaddafi surrounding the Presidential Palace in a show of unity? These were women and families. Instead you pointed in the direction of E Libya where a few hundred men made dubious claims.