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Paikin: NATO Libya Mission’s Initial Goals Have Been Distorted

June 20, 2011

By Zach Paikin

Invoking the Responsibility to Protect doctrine earlier this year, the United Nations Security Council justly sanctioned a NATO mission to prevent mass atrocities from taking place in Libya. Unfortunately, Western states continue to put ideology before pragmatism. The result is the failure to adequately advance Western interests while our soldiers’ lives are put at risk.

The initial goals of the NATO mission were — or perhaps should have been — clear. The primary goal was to establish a no-fly zone over Libya by bombing Libyan airfields to prevent forces loyal to Libyan President Muammar Gaddafi from killing thousands of civilians from the air. Secondary goals existed as well: the possible establishment of a “no-drive zone” by bombing Libyan roads to prevent mass atrocities from being committed on the ground, imposing an arms embargo on Libya, perhaps even mildly arming the anti-regime rebels.

Now, the mission has changed to removing Gaddafi from power and facilitating a potential transition to a new Libyan government led by the rebels. Whether or not this will require ground forces present in Libya — despite the clear lack of appetite for sending them — remains unclear.

Clearly, Western states haven’t learned that state building isn’t their responsibility. It is even unclear whether it is in fact possible to undertake building a state based on our principles and values with a population that doesn’t necessarily share them.

In Afghanistan, after two missions that have lasted nearly ten years combined, combat operations are about to end for Canadian soldiers. Everyone seems to have no problem with the fact that, even though the entire point of the mission was the remove the Taliban from power and push them permanently outside of Afghanistan’s borders, the Afghan government led by Hamid Karzai is now negotiating with the Taliban. (Karzai had actually previously threatened to join the Taliban.)

In Iraq, state building failed to eliminate insurgent groups and the result was civil war. The situation is more stable now than before, and the result of stability has been the transformation of Iraq into a province of Iran. Neither stability nor instability in a post-Saddam Iraq serves Western interests, and neither results in the creation of a reliable state based upon liberal values.

With the so-called “Arab Spring” well under way, however, Western states seem to be ignoring the pursuit of their own interests and values in favour of attempting to create liberal democracy in a region that doesn’t necessarily want it. Instead of using our military might to ensure the enforcement of our values and the pursuit of our interests, we are attempting to place both our interests and our values in the hands of those who do not share them. This is particularly concerning in the case of Libya, where many of the rebels have ties to Al-Qaeda.

Instead of unequivocally opposing the rise of Islamism in Egypt and Turkey, many Western states welcome it. Western states have also failed to sanction the Palestinian Authority and Lebanon over the deliberate or non-deliberate welcoming of Iranian proxies Hamas and Hezbollah into government earlier this year.

What should a NATO aerial campaign look like instead? The successful 1999 bombing of Yugoslavia provides us with a good example. The goals were clear: produce a withdrawal of all hostile military, paramilitary and police forces from Kosovo (to be replaced by a UN peacekeeping force), a just solution to the refugee problem, and the establishment of a political framework for Kosovo.

Although there were tactical concerns — notably the killing of Serbian civilians due to NATO’s decision to fly at high altitudes — the strategic goal of the mission was accomplished, namely preventing Slobodan Milosevic from repeating the atrocities he had committed four years prior in Bosnia. The goal was not to wrest Milosevic from power nor was it to create a new government in place of his. Milosevic only departed from the presidency of Yugoslavia following the disputed 2000 presidential election.

From Afghanistan and Iraq — and perhaps Libya as well — Western states should take two lessons.

First would be not to tie one’s military down in state building. The potential rewards are not worth the risks. State building makes your soldiers a target and reduces your military’s mobility, especially when one operates out of large bases as opposed to spread-out ones. This is particularly difficult in cases when our enemies have no borders, yet we have to adhere to international law.

Second, Western states — particularly the United States — need to focus on strengthening their navies more than their armies. This will expand their reach and will help advance their interests more effectively than the occupation of territory, especially when so much land — and even aerial — warfare waged by Western states presently possesses clear tactical but unclear strategic goals.

Zach Paikin is a weekly blogger for Konekt Magazine online and the Canada Editor at Fair Observer. Some of his columns will serve as guest contributions to The Opposition.

This column originally appeared online at

3 Comments leave one →
  1. June 20, 2011 1:27 pm

    Very good contribution — I had this same discussion with a friend this weekend. How can we, therefore, work to resolve this with political action, instead of the current military campaign? The strategy to “get” Qaddafi appears to be throwing rocks at an anthill. I don’t hear this being questioned in many places, and certainly not in Parliament, where the bombing mission was just extended with little dissent or discussion.

    Again, great job. I look forward to reading more articles here in the future. :)

  2. Jon permalink
    June 20, 2011 4:45 pm

    I am in favour of removing Qaddafi from office solely due to the fact that he has committed crimes that should send him to the ICC. We shouldn’t kill him. More like arrest him.

    Also great job on the post. This site is already shaping up to be fantastic.

  3. June 22, 2011 12:52 am

    The Responsibility To Protect was, in its inception, a noble doctrine. It listed clear non-violent measures that should be taken in good faith to protect civilians before resorting to military force. Economic sanctions, diplomatic pressure, international legislative action, and the like. Military operations are the very last resort, and if it came to that, the Responsibility To Protect included extensive guidelines for curbing mission creep and transferring power to the local authorities once the dust settles.

    NATO has clearly jumped the gun, seeing as they use an arms embargo as a “secondary” measure to the bombing campaign. That goes totally against the ethos of Responsibility To Protect, and exposes the Libya mission for what it is: a thinly-veiled excuse to forcibly remove Gaddafi from power. Let’s call a spade a spade. I want the dictator gone as much as anybody, but hiding behind the Responsibility To Protect isn’t fooling anyone.

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