In the absence of any evident national interest justification for bombing Libya, the Obama administration is said to have been motivated by the so-called responsibility to protect — or “R2P” per the wonkish English acronym. In American discussions, “R2P” has quickly come to be associated with Obama advisor Samantha Power. But “R2P” did not emerge full-grown from the brain of Samantha Power. Rather, it grew out of the pseudo-legal doctrine of “the right of humanitarian intervention,” which was developed by mostly European academics in the 1990s in order to justify the NATO interventions in the Bosnia and Kosovo conflicts.
It was undoubtedly in recognition of his role in promoting “humanitarian intervention” – or “l’ingérence humanitaire” in the French original — that the “French doctor” Bernard Kouchner would be named the first head of the UN protectorate in Kosovo, following the conclusion of the 78-day NATO bombing campaign that drove Yugoslav forces from the then province. The point of the “right of humanitarian intervention” was to qualify several fundamental guarantees and prohibitions enshrined in the UN Charter: namely, the respect of state sovereignty and territorial integrity and the fundamental prohibition on the use of force in international relations.
In a nutshell, the doctrine of “humanitarian intervention” held that the aforesaid founding principles of the UN are all very well and good, but when civilian lives are at stake in a domestic conflict foreign states or coalitions of states may intervene anyway. The “responsibility to protect” appears on first glance to go even further, converting the right of states to intervene into their “responsibility” to do so. On closer inspection of the relevant UN texts devoted to “R2P,” the authorization of international military action is far more hedged and the primary “responsibility to protect” in fact devolves on states vis-à-vis their own citizens.
But, be that as it may, nothing could more clearly illustrate the complete arbitrariness to which the application of “R2P” is subject in practice than the current intervention in Libya. The invocation of “R2P” in the Libyan case is based on media reports of attacks on civilians by Libyan government forces at the outset of the unrest in February. Never mind that there were also reports of attacks on civilians by Iranian government forces following the Iranian elections in June 2009. Never mind that there are reports of massive use of violence against civilians in Syria at present. Never mind that the United States itself is constantly accused of killing civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan. Does no one remember the WikiLeaks “Collateral Murder” video?
Never mind, finally, that the United States and its NATO allies do in fact kill civilians. Even when the victims of their attacks are predominantly civilians, it is generally assumed that the targets were legitimate military targets, nonetheless, or that the attacks were the result of regrettable mistakes committed in the inevitable “fog of war.” Both of the two explanations have been used, for instance, to justify the September 2009 German-ordered American air strike near Kunduz, Afghanistan, that left scores of civilians dead.
In November 2004, incidentally, French forces in the Ivoirian city of Abidjan opened fire on a crowd of anti-French protestors killing at least seven people and wounding dozens. By virtually all accounts other than that of the French government, the protestors were unarmed. Around the same time, French helicopter gunships opened fire on civilian protestors elsewhere in Abidjan killing many more. (For a detailed reconstruction, see my “The Black Tuesday of the French Army.”)
As it so happens, Muammar al-Gaddafi denies that Libyan forces have purposely targeted civilians. Unlike in the cases of Bosnia and Kosovo, there has not been even the pretense of a neutral international investigation to determine the circumstances of the alleged attacks or indeed whether they even occurred at all.
Still more to the point, however, in recent days it has emerged that the anti-Gaddafi rebel-forces from eastern Libya are not only openly supported by al-Qaeda, but indeed themselves include Qaeda-linked elements. I first discussed the evidence for al-Qaeda’s involvement in the rebellion in my “Saving the Libyan Islamists.” In the meanwhile, as reported on PJM on Friday, rebel commander Abdul-Hakim al-Hasadi has admitted not only that he was detained by U.S. forces in 2002 after “fighting against the foreign invasion” in Afghanistan, but also that he later recruited Libyans to fight with al-Qaeda in Iraq.
As discussed in my earlier report, according to captured al-Qaeda personnel records, al-Hasadi’s hometown of Darnah sent more foreign fighters to fight with al-Qaeda in Iraq than any other foreign city or town. Al-Hasadi has noted, moreover, that some of the fighters he sent to Iraq have since returned to Libya and are fighting with the rebel forces whose path to the West is presently being cleared by American, French, and British missiles.
This is to say that in the name of the “responsibility to protect” civilians, the United States and its European partners have entered into a de facto military alliance with an organization that famously makes no distinction between combatants and non-combatants and whose most characteristic modus operandi consists precisely of terror attacks on civilian targets. Unlike Muammar al-Gaddafi — or, for that matter, American or French military authorities — al-Qaeda does not deny targeting civilians. Targeting civilians is what al-Qaeda does.
The number of civilians deliberately killed in Qaeda-linked terror attacks over the last decade rises at least into the tens of thousands and likely into the hundreds of thousands. These include, of course, the nearly 3000 civilians murdered in the 9/11 attacks, the over 200 murdered in the 2002 Bali bombings, the nearly 200 murdered in the Madrid train bombings, the over 50 murdered in the London transport bombings, and thousands murdered over many years in Iraq in a seemingly incessant stream of suicide attacks. Some of the Iraqi victims will undoubtedly have been killed by al-Qaeda recruits sent to Iraq by none other than Abdul-Hakim al-Hasadi.
It is notable that in all the years that al-Qaeda has been spreading terror in Iraq, the “responsibility to protect” has virtually never been invoked in order to demand the protection of Iraqi civilians. On the contrary, the deaths of Iraqis at the hands of al-Qaeda has typically been construed as somehow America’s responsibility and used indeed as an argument for hastening the withdrawal of American troops.