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The war in Libya fails the test

The war in Libya fails the test

By George Clifford

The United States is now fighting three wars concurrently: one each in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya. That is correct, Libya. Even though no formal declaration of war exists, the U.S. is at war with Libya and we need moral clarity about that fact and about whether the war is just or unjust.

Consider how the U.S. would react if another nation – Libya, perhaps – had taken the following actions against the U.S.:

• Conducted a missile attack against the Old Executive Office Building or the West Wing of the White House that killed several of the President’s family members;

• Bombed and launched missile attacks against military bases, equipment, and units, especially elements of the armed forces engaged in suppressing an internal rebellion;

• Encouraged, and provided material support for, other nations to attack U.S. armed forces as well as for the rebels;

• Spent upwards of $550 million on the above efforts.

Based upon the reaction of the U.S. to the 9/11 attacks, predicting the U.S. response seems a no-brainer: the U.S. would consider itself at war with that nation. Those hypothetical actions mirror what the U.S. has done to Libya: attacked offices in the compound occupied by the Libyan head of state, destroyed the Libyan air defense capability, supported NATO attacks against the Libyan armed forces, and, at a minimum, encouraged if not directly aided the Libyan rebels. Michael Ignatieff has coined the term “virtual war” to describe war waged at a distance, as the U.S. and NATO did in Kosovo and is now doing in Libya.

Christians have historically relied upon a Just War Theory analysis to determine the justice of a particular war. Before a just war begins, the proposed conflict must satisfy the following criteria:

1. Be fought for a just cause, either defense of territorial sovereignty or egregious violations of human rights. Libya, for decades less than a paragon of virtue, responded to internal political protests by unleashing military force against unarmed civilians that killed 300 plus and injured over 900 others. However, although that response was clearly wrong from a moral perspective, it does not seem an egregious violation of human rights. The Libyan acts fell far short of genocide and unjust acts by other governments that caused more casualties have not prompted multinational military interventions.

2. Be fought for the right intent, i.e., to create a more just peace. If Libya did not produce 2% of the world’s crude, would the military intervention have occurred? Genocide in Rwanda and the current vicious reprisals by Syria against protesters (hundreds, perhaps thousands, killed) have not prompted rapid international military interventions.

3. Be authorized by legitimate authority. United Nations Security Council resolution No. 1973 that authorizes action against Libya to protect civilians, create a no-fly zone, and enforce an arms embargo reasonably satisfies this criterion.

4. Be a last resort, having exhausted all reasonable means of alleviating the injustice without resorting to war. Perhaps the Libyan war satisfies this criterion. Although economic and other sanctions remain in place against Libya, those actions obviously did not prevent Libya from deploying its military to end the internal protests that birthed the revolt.

5. Have a reasonable chance of success. The international coalition can easily defeat the Libyan armed forces, with or without rebel aid. However, the war appears to have little chance of truly succeeding in establishing a more just peace because that presumes the timely emergence of a new and more just Libyan government. Neither pundits nor politicians appear to have articulated a viable plan for achieving that goal. Sadly, nobody even seems to have a clear vision of how to extricate the U.S. from the war.

6. Be proportional, i.e., the war must not cause more suffering than would have otherwise happened. As the casualty toll among all parties continues to rise (at this writing, almost all fatalities have been Libyans or among foreign personnel fighting for Qaddafi; from God’s perspective all persons have equal worth), the calculus continues to shift against the likelihood of this being a just war.

A just war must satisfy all of six of the jus ad bellum criteria. The Libyan war seems at best to satisfy no more than four criteria and only one (legitimate authority) with certainty.

Qaddafi is undoubtedly a menace to global peace and to the prosperity and well-being of Libyans. The United Nations, other nations, and non-governmental organizations and individuals rightfully deplore the tragic conditions of Libyan life and governance. Taking every step short of war is morally justifiable, indeed, perhaps a moral requirement.

Nevertheless, Qaddafi’s morally abhorrent policies and actions do not justify waging an unjust war. War is not a panacea or even a quick fix to problems that otherwise seem intractable.

We cannot reverse time. The war is underway. So what can a Christian to do?

• Pray for peace.

• Actively advocate ending active U.S. participation in the war. For Christians, the most important form of genuinely supporting U.S. troops entails asking them to fight only wars that a reasonable person can deem just. The Libyan war fails that standard.

• Vigorously oppose any efforts by NATO or other nations to continue the war.

• Recognize that the struggle for freedom is part of the process that births democracy. Like any birth, the struggle involves pain and multiple costs. Others can cheer from the sidelines, but the Libyan rebels – like a mother giving birth – must perform the labor.

• Assertively endorse the U.S. and other nations continuing every action short of war to facilitate the struggle of the Libyan people for to win liberty and democracy for themselves. Economic sanctions against purchasing Libyan oil will disrupt world markets to a relatively minor degree (remember, Libya only produces 2% of the world’s oil production) but can have major adverse consequences for the stability of Qaddafi’s regime and his ability to fund military operations against his people.

• Strongly recommend the U.S. and others remain alert and ready to respond should Qaddafi actually pursue genocidal policies, something that he has not yet done.

George Clifford is an ethicist and a priest in the Diocese of North Carolina. He retired from the Navy after serving as a chaplain for twenty-four years and now blogs at Ethical Musings (


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Craig Abernethy

When I was an undergraduate at Georgetown University, I took a semester course on the ethics of war and peace, taught by Fr. Richard McSorley, SJ, and one thing I remember is that just war ethics require a distinction between combatants and noncombatants, which is hardly likely to be observed in the current US war on Libya, where the US and allies have already attacked Tripoli.

John B. Chilton

George, I disagree. It seems to me that all six criteria are satisfied to a fairly high degree. And just because there isn’t certainty doesn’t mean there isn’t a reasonable chance of success.

I do believe the war is being fought with the right intent. It’s not about oil — Qadaffi could have “stabilized” the country as we have let him do so for decades, if we’d let him.

For me the war is just. That said, I take the point that we’ve not intervened in cases where human rights violations are at least as severe. I don’t want us to become the world’s policeman, but we do have much to atone for standing by when there has been genocide. For me that’s our moral conundrum and I have no easy answer.

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