When President Ronald Reagan ordered American F-111 fighter-bombers, assisted by F-18 and A-6E fighters, to strike at Libyan targets in April 1986, he did so based on strong and clear evidence that Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi’s government had directly ordered the bombing 10 days earlier of a night club in Berlin in which U.S. servicemen were killed. In other words, it was a surgical strike against government installations in a country linked directly to contemporaneous terrorist action against American personnel. It was a successful military operation, even though Qaddafi had been warned of the impending strike by one of his diplomatic supporters, and was able personally to escape the bombs by a matter of minutes.
Now, almost precisely a quarter century later, another American president apparently is contemplating military action of sorts against the very same foreign leader. This time, however, the reason for military action is far more vague — amorphous, even — and therefore far less likely to achieve an identifiable and defensible result if carried out.
Here are a few relevant facts. Fact — civil unrest in Libya is mounting; by some accounts, the country is in the throes of a civil war. Fact — Muammar Qaddafi continues to use force to defend against opposition forces seeking to oust him from power. Fact — some people already have died as a result of the violence in Libya. Fact — Libya’s long-serving leader rules with an iron, though not always even, hand. Fact — Libyans enjoy few of the civil or political liberties we enjoy in the United States. Fact — Muammar Qaddafi is not, at least by most accounts, a nice guy. Fact — many Libyans don’t care much for the United States. Fact — Libya poses no meaningful military threat to the United States. Fact — we are not at war with Libya. And, fact — there appears to be no evidence directly linking the Libyan government to any recent terrorist actions against the United States or American personnel.
So why are there reports that the Administration of President Barack Obama is contemplating creating and enforcing a “No-Fly Zone” over the country of Libya, or taking other military action against the country? Establishing and enforcing a No-Fly Zone is by any measure, a military action; one that requires the enforcing power to disable the target country’s air defense systems and capability, and then shoot down any unauthorized aircraft in that country’s or that area’s airspace.
While it may be the case that Washington is considering military action against Libya essentially because we just do not, like Qaddafi, no one wants to or would ever admit as much. Therefore, the explanations offered are more lofty; even if far less concrete. Many of the explanations in support of calls for military action against Qaddafi center around, or at least include charges, that the Libyan leader has committed “crimes against humanity?”
“Crimes against humanity?” Neither U.S. nor international law incorporates a single, clear definition of exactly what constitutes such an action. But all seem to include in a definition, the notion of a widespread, systemic practice of atrocities against a large population. U.S. civil law, such as the Alien Tort Statute found in Title 28 of the U.S. Code, invokes language referring to “genocide, large scale raping, torture, enslavement, and human trafficking.” While there seems to be little dispute that Qaddafi is employing military action to defend his regime, and that this has resulted in some deaths, including among those taking up arms against his regime; there is far less evidence, if perhaps any, the government in Tripoli in engaging in systemic and widespread “crimes against humanity,” however.
Even if it there existed a consensus that Qaddafi had committed a crime or crimes against humanity, the question would still remain how does that — or should that — provide a justification for U.S. military action, when the “crimes” are not targeted against the United States or American citizens?
And, while we’re at it, does anyone see a bit of hypocrisy in clamoring for military action against Muammar Qaddafi, when other leaders — such as North Korea’s Kim Jong-il, who systematically enslaves and starves the population of that country, thereby committing what would appear to be a much clearer “crime against humanity” — do not appear to be current targets of planned military action because of such deeds? In the North Korean leader’s case, in fact, the United States could be seen as complicit in his atrocities because we periodically provide shipments of food aid to North Korea.
Perhaps these inconsistent calls for action against leaders who engage in “crimes against humanity” have something more to do with the relative military power of the target country than with what the leaders are actually doing to their citizenry? Regardless of what’s really going on here in the behind-the-scenes decision-making, taking military action against a regime for reasons that appear thin and poorly-defined, at best — even if the target regime is an international pariah of sorts — does not provide the firm and consistent foundation for military action that serves the United States, or any nation, well in the long run.
By Bob Barr — The Barr Code.