Humanitarian and strategic questions surround Libyan intervention

Smoke billows from oil fires at Ras Lanuf / Photo Credit Essam Mohamed
Smoke billows from oil fires at Ras Lanuf / Photo Credit Essam Mohamed


Catholic observers are questioning the humanitarian impact and strategic aims of the U.S. intervention in Libya, as President Obama prepares to deliver a speech defending the military campaign.

“It is our moral responsibility as a nation to rigorously examine the use of military force in light of the need to protect human life and dignity,” wrote Bishop Howard J. Hubbard, head of the U.S. bishops' committee for peace and justice. In a March 24 letter to National Security Advisor Thomas Donilon he said the U.S. bishops were following events in Libya “with great apprehension.”

George Weigel, a Catholic writer and  Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center noted that “the problem with the administration's policy thus far, is that it has been feckless, and unattached to any clear strategic goal.”

“Means aren't being connected to strategic ends here – and they won't be until the United States exerts the kind of leadership that only it can give.”

President Obama recently told Speaker of the House John Boehner in a letter that U.S. forces were “conducting a limited and well-defined mission in support of international efforts to protect civilians and prevent a humanitarian disaster.” The president also maintains that the mission is in America's national interest, an argument he is expected to advance in a speech on March 28.

Allied forces began the Libyan campaign on March 19, two days after a U.N. Security Council resolution approved the use of force against the regime of Colonel Moammar Gaddafi. The Libyan leader allegedly began massacring civilians in response to a popular uprising that began in mid-February and has since developed into a civil war.

Hours before the president's speech, Weigel provided CNA with his thoughts on the United States' role in the international intervention. He said the U.S. seemed to be conducting a legitimate and possibly just war, but without a clear strategy or strong leadership.

“If mass murder was about to unfold in Libya, stopping it was a just cause and doing so exhibited a right intention,” Weigel said, explaining why he believed the intervention could qualify as a just war. While he does not believe states need U.N. approval to go to war, he noted that the security council's approval showed “an international consensus had been reached that something had to be done.”

While some Catholics may question the idea of a war being fought for humanitarian reasons, Weigel thinks the notion is legitimate.

“I think a strong just war case can be made that military intervention to stop genocide would have been appropriate when the former-Yugoslavia was unraveling in the 1990s,” he noted, “as I think a similar case could have been in Rwanda and in Darfur. The prerogatives of sovereignty do not include the right to murder your people.”

Regarding Libya, Weigel believes the problem is not the United States' intervention in a remote country's civil war, but rather, President Obama's “indecisiveness, multilateralism, and lack of strategic vision.” The president resisted a unilateral approach to intervention in Libya, and instead waited for an agreement to be reached between the Arab League and European countries.

A broad spectrum of conservative and liberal politicians have expressed concern over this approach. Some consider the United States' involvement to be fundamentally misguided, while others – like Weigel – want it carried out more decisively.

Bishop Giovanni Martinelli, the apostolic vicar of Libya's capital Tripoli, has questioned the need for allied forces' bombing strikes, as has Pope Benedict XVI. Near the beginning of the campaign, the Libyan bishop said it could lead to “a very lengthy crisis with an uncertain outcome.” Pope Benedict said on March 27 that leaders should begin immediate talks in order to halt the use of weapons.

In his March 24 letter to the National Security Council on behalf of the U.S. bishops' conference, Bishop Hubbard refrained from coming to a negative or positive judgment of the military action, although he stated that the basic cause of protecting civilians appeared to be just. But he urged authorities to remember other considerations of just war thinking in their decisions.

“The just war tradition teaches that the use of force must have 'serious prospects for success' and
'must not produce evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated,'” recalled Bishop Hubbard, citing the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

“Important questions include: How is the use of force protecting the civilian population of Libya? Is the force employed proportionate to the goal of protecting civilians?”

“Since the protection of civilians is paramount,” asked Bishop Hubbard, “a key question is: Will the coalition actions stay focused on this limited goal and mission?”

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