The PJ Tatler

NATO's now threatening to bomb Libya's rebels

Well, this is one way to guarantee that no matter which side wins, we lose.

“We’ve been conveying a message to the rebels that we will be compelled to defend civilians, whether pro-Qaddafi or pro-opposition,” said a senior Obama administration official. “We are working very hard behind the scenes with the rebels so we don’t confront a situation where we face a decision to strike the rebels to defend civilians.”

The warnings, and intense consultations within the NATO-led coalition over its rules for attacking anyone who endangers innocent civilians, come at a time when the civil war in Libya is becoming ever more chaotic, and the battle lines ever less distinct. They raise a fundamental question that the military is now grappling with: Who in Libya is a civilian?

Aren’t the rebels mostly, scratch that, all civilians by definition?

The situation is as complicated legally as it is militarily. The United Nations Security Council resolution that authorized a no-flight zone and other steps in Libya makes no distinction between pro-rebel and pro-Qaddafi civilians.

Senior legal advisers to the military campaign say that unarmed civilians, whether living in towns or fleeing the fighting, are clearly meant to be protected by the United Nations resolution, while opposition forces taking an active part in combat away from cities are currently seen as falling outside of its protection. But one such official acknowledged that there are other situations that are much less clear.

Start with muddled, unclear principles and goals, end up with muddy, unclear directives. Somebody in this administration really needs to pick up The Art of War Kinetic Military Action and do a powerpoint on it for the rest of the team.

At least a future scapegoat has re-emerged.

On March 21, in a briefing with reporters, Tom Donilon, the national security advisor to President Obama, appeared not to distinguish between armed rebels and other citizens of Libya who opposed the Qaddafi government.

PJM has examined Donilon’s role in this before. If there’s a head that should roll over this mess, it’s his.