What Are We Doing in Libya?

Twenty two days after Colonel Qaddafi fired on protesters in Libya, we are now in the middle of war. Well, not of war. We don’t use that term anymore. We are now in the middle of “military engagement,” which effectively means that the US-led coalition is launching cruise missiles over Libya. But a war by any other name is still a name.

Peter Nixon over at dotCommonweal is in agreement, in his post “War. Again.” “Make no mistake;” he writes, “This is not a humanitarian intervention. We are taking sides in a civil war.”

President Bush was justly criticized for his rush to war in Iraq and for not having a clear plan for what to do after we defeated Iraq’s armed forces. Bush’s pace, however, looks positively dilatory compared to the speed with which President Obama, with very little consultation with Congress or the American people, has committed the United States to yet another war to establish a government in a foreign country that is more to our liking.

And if the principle that governments cannot slaughter their citizens with impunity is to be the principle underlying our foreign policy, where are we off to next? Yemen, where army snipers killed 46 people yesterday? There is no shortage of tyrannies in the world. How much of our blood and treasure are we willing to expend to remake the world in our own image?

Historically, Christians have debated whether or not the demands of the Sermon on the Mount should lead the church to oppose all war, or whether some wars might be justified. For the majority of Christendom, the latter side has won. The first major theological justification for the morality of war goes back to Augustine who argues in his letter to Boniface that military engagement is an obligation of neighbor love, and in doing so, lays the foundation for just war theory:

Do not think that it is impossible for any one to please God while engaged in active military service. . . Think, then, of this first of all, when you are arming for the battle, that even your bodily strength is a gift of God; for, considering this, you will not employ the gift of God against God. For, when faith is pledged, it is to be kept even with the enemy against whom the war is waged, how much more with the friend for whom the battle is fought! Peace should be the object of your desire; war should be waged only as a necessity, and waged only that God may by it deliver men from the necessity and preserve them in peace. For peace is not sought in order to the kindling of war, but war is waged in order that peace may be obtained. Therefore, even in waging war, cherish the spirit of a peacemaker, that, by conquering those whom you attack, you may lead them back to the advantages of peace; for our Lord says: “Blessed are the peacemakers; for they shall be called the children of God.” Matthew 5:9 If, however, peace among men be so sweet as procuring temporal safety, how much sweeter is that peace with God which procures for men the eternal felicity of the angels! Let necessity, therefore, and not your will, slay the enemy who fights against you. As violence is used towards him who rebels and resists, so mercy is due to the vanquished or the captive, especially in the case in which future troubling of the peace is not to be feared (Epistle 189).

Following Augustine, Aquinas too treated just war under love or charity:

In order for a war to be just, three things are necessary. First, the authority of the sovereign by whose command the war is to be waged. For it is not the business of a private individual to declare war, because he can seek for redress of his rights from the tribunal of his superior. . .

. . . Secondly, a just cause is required, namely that those who are attacked, should be attacked because they deserve it on account of some fault. . .

. . . Thirdly, it is necessary that the belligerents should have a rightful intention, so that they intend the advancement of good, or the avoidance of evil. Hence Augustine says (De Verb. Dom. [The words quoted are to be found not in St. Augustine’s works, but Can. Apud. Caus. xxiii, qu. 1): “True religion looks upon as peaceful those wars that are waged not for motives of aggrandizement, or cruelty, but with the object of securing peace, of punishing evil-doers, and of uplifting the good.” For it may happen that the war is declared by the legitimate authority, and for a just cause, and yet be rendered unlawful through a wicked intention. Hence Augustine says (Contra Faust. xxii, 74): “The passion for inflicting harm, the cruel thirst for vengeance, an unpacific and relentless spirit, the fever of revolt, the lust of power, and such like things, all these are rightly condemned in war.” (II-II, Q. 40, art. 1).

In addition to the criteria Aquinas lays out for going to war (ius ad bellum), namely, right authority, just cause, and just intent, just war theory also includes attention to the way the war is fought (ius in bello). In other words, the war ought to be proportional. It ought to use only enough force to respond to the threat at hand.

So it this “war” in Libya just? It does seem that the United States is at pains to guarantee that the authority initiating this military engagement is rightful. This is not a case of unilateral action or “coalitions of the willing,” as Ross Douthat points out:

In its opening phase, at least, our war in Libya looks like the beau ideal of a liberal internationalist intervention. It was blessed by the United Nations Security Council. It was endorsed by the Arab League. It was pushed by the diplomats at Hillary Clinton’s State Department, rather than the military men at Robert Gates’s Pentagon. Its humanitarian purpose is much clearer than its connection to American national security. And it was initiated not by the U.S. Marines or the Air Force, but by the fighter jets of the French Republic.

And our cause does indeed seem just. Qadaffi is a pretty wicked guy, especially in recent weeks as he has unleached his troops on those who have risen in protest against his rule, killing many and threatening the country with further disasters. As the Chicago Tribune points out, Libya imports about 90% of its food and other basic necessities, and Qadaffi is likely to use food as a weapon, threatening starvation to those who do not comply.

But what about our intent? In order to determine the justice of our intent, we need to first know what it is, and that is not so easy. President Obama announced at a news conference in Chile this morning that military action in Libya has only a humanitarian intent, namely, stopping the killing of Libyan civilians by Col. Qaddafi’s soldiers. Nevertheless, “it is U.S. policy that Qadafi needs to go.” A recent NYTimes article addresses this point exactly: “Target in Libya is Clear; Intent is Not:”

But there is also the risk that Colonel Qaddafi may not be dislodged by air power alone. That leaves the question of whether the United States and its allies are committing enough resources to win the fight. The delay in starting the onslaught complicated the path toward its end. . . For Mr. Obama, who has explicitly said that Colonel Qaddafi has lost any right to govern, the conundrum is that the United Nations mandate does not authorize his removal. So Mr. Obama now says the goal is limited: to use force to protect the Libyan people and allow humanitarian aid to get through.

An intention is something more than a desire, in the Aristotelian-Thomistic tradition. An intention (proaireton in Greek) is something deliberated upon, something chosen with reason. For Aquinas, intention is an act of the will which “tends toward the end,” but which presupposes an act of reason ordering something to the end (I-II, Q. 12, art. 1). Intention further includes the means to achieving this end: “the will is moved to the means for the sake of the end: and thus the movement of the will to the end and its movement to the means are one and the same thing. For when I say: “I wish to take medicine for the sake of health,” I signify no more than one movement of my will. And this is because the end is the reason for willing the means” (I-II, 12.4).

So in the case of Libya, for the intention to be just, both the means and the end in sight must be just. And there is a lot of question if this is the case in our current engagement. Douthat writes,

Because liberal wars depend on constant consensus-building within the (so-called) international community, they tend to be fought by committee, at a glacial pace, and with a caution that shades into tactical incompetence. And because their connection to the national interest is often tangential at best, they’re often fought with one hand behind our back and an eye on the exits, rather than with the full commitment that victory can require. . . Because liberal wars depend on constant consensus-building within the (so-called) international community, they tend to be fought by committee, at a glacial pace, and with a caution that shades into tactical incompetence. And because their connection to the national interest is often tangential at best, they’re often fought with one hand behind our back and an eye on the exits, rather than with the full commitment that victory can require.

It seems to me that our intention in Libya has not been established. Qadaffi is a bad guy, and nobody wants him around, but our intention is not to remove him from power. Libyans who rose against Qadaffi are in a bad place right now, but our intention is not to protect them, at least not really, since protecting them would presumably mean a regime-change, and that isn’t our intention at the time. It is terrible to watch a guy like Qadaffi start a new reign of terror in North Africa, but just war principles are in place because war is such a tragic event that it need be only utilized as a last resort, and only with an eye toward guaranteeing a more just peace in the future. This “engagement” in Libya is neither a last resort, nor is the end in sight any better than what we have now: a dictator in control of a country.

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15 comments so far

  1. Meghan on

    I think it becomes a question not only of Just War theory -but the emerging Responsibility to Protect doctrine….when measuring intent. I’m not saying our intent is clear – just that I think we have to evaluate the united nations intention in light of BOTH just war theory AND R2P, which is a favorite of the current Secretary General.

  2. James on

    I actually was thinking about the whole Libya war this morning and to be honest I haven’t come up with any definitive conclusion. As you note, there seems to be a lack of clear information about the intention of the US involvement in Libya. Officially, It seems to be protecting the innocent in Libya. But how does the current military action promote that intention? Additionally, what is the probability of success in using the force that we are undertaking? Again, I’m not sure.
    Unfortunately, there seems to be more questions than answers.

  3. Meghan on

    But I think this is why R2P needs a lot greater development and attention….b/c we haven’t laid out a criteria, checks/balances and structure — and I say this as someone who wants R2P to be a useful category to push beyond the nation-state approach of just war theory.

    • everydaythomist on

      Meg,
      Great to have your authoritative voice on the blog! Here’s my problem with “right to protect.”
      1. I have a Niebuhrian influence on my anthropology that leads me to assume that collectives, i.e. nations, are almost always going to act in their own self-interest, thus leading R2P to descend into finding a humanitarian reason to explain an otherwise selfish motive. There was no appeal to right to protect when Mugabe started murdering people who hung up signs for the opposition party. But all the sudden there is in Libya. Could this have anything to do that Libya’s stability in the region may impact the cost or the supply of oil? I’m not saying that oil is an underlying motive by I do tend to think that right to protect will only be appealed to when there is a “selfish” reason for doing so. People may be altruistic; nations I do not think are. Or at least nations won’t stay altruistic for long, once the costs get high (Somalia, e.g.).
      2. On a related point, if we assume that selfishness is an underlying motive, what limits do we place on right to protect? When do we justify the use of force, and when do we not? Here, again, just war criteria seem to be the ticket. I think that the US has done a good job on the authority front, and there is no question Obama isn’t acting like a “cowboy” with our military. There is a strong coalition backing this invasion. And Qadaffi is rotten. But that still leaves intent. Are our means reasonable for the alleged end of protection? Again, I highly doubt it. Either we get rid of Qadaffi (which means we have to involve this coalition in regime change since presumably Qadaffi’s sons would replace Qadaffi) or we don’t which means we don’t really protect. If the former is truly our intent (as it might be to listen to Obama’s speech), then we might end up NOT having much of a coalition on our hands. The African and European countries who backed the attack have been clear that they are not in this in the long haul. Which means that if we get rid of Qadaffi, we may have a problem with authority. If we don’t get rid of Qadaffi, we may have a problem explaining to the African Union why we went and bombed a country and then withdrew without removing Qadaffi as he goes back to murdering people who resisted him. Neither of those options look good for me.

      I always say that foresight is an integral part of prudence. Where’s the foresight here?

  4. Meghan on

    Beth,
    I was just teaching Niebuhr last week – and I agree you the self-interest problem is, for me, a major problem. However, as a good CST scholar and fan of John 23rd…I am perhaps guilty of being overly optimistic about human action. (not necessarily in this case, but in general) haha. Part of the problem is that there aren’t currently clear answers to your questions – in part – b/c the doctrine is not developed enough. And, won’t be until scholars really do the theoretical work…the diplomats aren’t going to and aren’t equipped.

    I think Subsidiarity is a principle that needs to be employed – right now, it simply isn’t part of the conversation enough. I do think part of the conversation will become what action/not do intermediary bodies take – the Arab league, the African union.

    Personally, I the wall I hit isn’t with reference to libya alone, but why not Sudan, etc. I think you’re correct about oil…and I am uncomfortable with that as motivation. It is a Niebuhrian question of justice/power…

    In a positive way, Right to Protect was employed for the various peacemaking and diplomatic interventions by the UN and African Union in the wake of Kenyan election crisis….part is that it is that new, and it is the “pet project” of the current secretary general. It is an attempt at rethinking sovereignty and including positive peacemaking not just military.

    • everydaythomist on

      Good thoughts, Meg. I agree with you that there is a lot of scholarly fruit that still needs to be harvested on the “responsibility to protect” and the reformulation of what constitutes a just war. As Tisha mentioned, just war has some important limitations in addressing the world stage today. Let me add a further concern, namely, that we expand the right to protect so far that we are constantly involving the military in global squirmishes, or worse, full-blown wars. China, for example, is awful in more ways than I can count, and it oppresses its citizens (as Tisha also mentioned) but I am not so sure I really want our military facing off with China, nor do I think that would ultimately be conducive with the common good. The principle of subsidiarity helps some, especially in places like Africa where the AU or neighboring countries can put pressure on someone like Mugabe, but in China? What governing body can really deal with China? So then the responsibility to protect collapses into “right to protect only if you’re small enough and don’t have a threatening enough military.” That seems pretty problematic, not to mention the questions of justice such implications of the R2P raises.

      Last resort needs to be mentioned here, and I think this goes along with your mention of subsidiarity. There are charitable organizations that can do much to protect citizens and alleviate suffering at the hands of a dictator. CRS, etc. can all send people in (brave people who are willing to risk their lives in some occasions) to help citizens in other countries who are trying to overthrow a dictator or resist oppression. This obviously doesn’t solve the “regime change” problem, but it might provide much needed support for the people in a country like Libya to keep fighting for the regime change they want rather than us doing it for them (and I predict this will raise eyebrows among those who say that you can’t fight against a dictator’s military without arms, and CRS isn’t bringing weapons into the countries it serves. This is my own idealism. I think it is better for regime change to come from within rather than without).

      • Meghan on

        I completely agree on regime change coming from within….I would also add that in addition to the repsonsibilty to protect…which I want to maintain is not ONLY MILITARILY – there is also necessary and very interesting work begin done on responsibility regarding human rights beyond STATES and beyond the no longer helpful NATION-STATE model alone. IN particular, transnational actors (both agencies and corporations) in many weak states have greater ability to create human rights regime….and There is, in my humble opinion, a persuasive argument for their responsibility to do so. For example, the work of Onora O’Neill and Thomas Pogge are two important examples of this.

  5. Meghan on

    But I have a major problem with Libya prompting military action and Darfur, genocides not prompting no fly zones and clear UN action…..which brings us back to oil.

  6. Tisha on

    I think Meghan is absolutely right that the just war doctrine, which applies primarily to limit the actions of self-interested nation-states, is not sufficient to address the reality of an interconnected world and the idea that government can and often do crush their own citizens.

    On the other hand, R2P is hardly a panacea. It gets deployed when the international community wants to violate the sovereignty of a relatively weak international player. What about when China tortures its own citizens? What about when the United States fails to protect the rights of non-citizens within its borders? I see no one invoking R2P against the powerful, not even in terms of military action, but when debating the extent and limits of government responsibility.

    • everydaythomist on

      Well spoken, Tisha. I have wondered the same thing myself.

      • Meghan on

        I agree – I don’t think its a panacea…I think it is an important and helpful development -but needs to actually be developed. And ultimately, the test will be – is it applied to both weak and strong states — or both states with and without oil…

  7. Meghan on

    I agree – I don’t think its a panacea…I think it is an important and helpful development -but needs to actually be developed. And ultimately, the test will be – is it applied to both weak and strong states — or both states with and without oil…

  8. everydaythomist on

    Meg,
    You should write a R2P post for catholicmoraltheology.com

    • Meghan on

      I would like too…I’ve never seen that site before….Perhaps I can this weekend….

  9. everydaythomist on

    It’s not live yet, but stay tuned!


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