Some commentators and politicians are describing it as mission creep – a slide into deeper military involvement in Libya, going beyond the original goal, and inviting unpredictable consequences. In simple terms, it is the decision by Britain, France and Italy to send military officers to organize the flagging rebel campaign against Muammar Gaddafi’s forces. These “advisers” are being deployed mainly in the rebel stronghold, the eastern port city of Benghazi, to train and counsel the anti-Gaddafi forces, who have thus far failed to make much headway against the Libyan army and have been beaten back in several places. Defense experts acknowledge that there will be more military personnel to protect these “advisers.”
How does a humanitarian operation turn into “mission creep?” A brief look at events in little more than a month provides an answer. Resolution 1973 approved by the United Nations Security Council on March 17, 2011 authorized “all necessary measures … to protect civilians and civilian-populated areas … while excluding a foreign occupation force of any form on any part of Libyan territory.” But any process of employing “all necessary measures” should begin with peaceful attempts. Otherwise, only military force has been employed. Indeed, the African Union put forward a plan including these steps: an immediate ceasefire; unhindered delivery of humanitarian aid; the protection of foreign nationals; a dialogue between the government and rebels on a political settlement; and the suspension of NATO air raids. Furthermore, Turkey, a NATO member, had already begun to mediate between the two sides in Libya. But the West and the rebels insist that Gaddafi must go first.
Since the US-led bombing of Libya started immediately after Resolution 1973, critics would be forgiven for concluding that the Security Council and Secretary General Ban Ki-moon have become tools of Prime Minister Cameron of Britain and President Sarkozy of France, with President Obama apparently dragging his feet. Ban Ki-moon, looking for another term as UN Secretary General, is culpable in what amounts to a Western attempt to invoke a seemingly justifiable humanitarian principle when, in reality, the intention and preparation for a military assault were already in place. Any hope of a peaceful outcome stood no chance. Had the Obama administration, particularly his Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, acted a little more decisively in friendly countries, Bahrain and Yemen, when the rulers there brutally suppressed civilian protesters, the Western powers would have enjoyed the benefit of credibility. Gaddafi may well have seen a determined and consistent humanitarian policy on the part of the West.
Unfortunately, Britain and France have preferred military intervention all along. Cameron and Sarkozy are weak and unpopular men struggling with strong currents of domestic opposition to a range of economic and social policies of their governments. Every beleaguered leader knows that a crisis abroad helps to shore up support at home. What other reason could there be behind such zeal for another military adventure in Libya after the disastrous wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan in the last decade?
In a boastful exclusive on April 20, 2011, the British newspaper Independent reported the deployment in Libya of “one of the most battle-hardened commanders in the British Army, with extensive experience in combat in Afghanistan.” The Defense Ministry’s message was, “here comes Britain’s own Rambo, fresh from Helmand.” But those who have closely followed British military units in Basra in Iraq and Helmand in Afghanistan know that their achievements have been far from glorious. And the American military took over in both places. In the event of British, French or Italian casualties in the Libyan civil war, further escalation and deployment of troops is a real possibility.
Even members of Prime Minister Cameron’s own Conservative Party in Parliament are doubtful about the way the Libyan operation is evolving. The House of Commons backed Security Council Resolution 1973. But John Baron, a Conservative, is among a number of parliamentarians now strongly critical of the British Prime Minister, who wrote an article with President Obama and President Sarkozy, asserting that “Gaddafi must go, and go for good.” Recalling that Parliament had “only given its backing for a no-fly zone to protect civilians,” several MPs have accused the government of seeking “illegal” regime change in Libya.
Western claims that “Gaddafi is killing his own people” need an honest examination in a wider context. War is a crime whenever and wherever civilians and peaceful protesters are killed or suppressed. When Gaddafi’s troops kill civilians, it is a crime. Equally, when in Bahrain the ruling family’s foreign mercenaries and Saudi forces who have recently moved in kill peaceful protesters demanding their basic rights, those troops are committing a crime.
Violence against civilians in mosques and hospitals, denying treatment to the wounded, and threatening doctors are among the worst of offenses. So is the violence against demonstrators by Yemeni government forces; killings by American drone attacks and death squads in Pakistan and Afghanistan; and the dreadful civilian casualties among the besieged Palestinian population in Israel’s war on Gaza. Above all, the United States kills people, including its own, based on flawed justice, hunch, suspicion or whim. Unleashing brutal and blind terror is as much in the nature of civilized governments as it is of outlaw regimes.