Libya: When moral crusades are crossed with military force

As the Libyan civil war ticks on into its fifth month, NATO missions continue over the skies, but, it seems, with decreasing enthusiasm. Burdened by rising costs, NATO members find themselves caught between a rock and a hard place – but one that seems largely self-made, what happens when the moral purpose of a mission is too tightly coupled to military means.

The strains on NATO are telling: only eight members are involved in air-to-ground missions, with its secretary-general warning of “two-tier” operations where many members opt out of participation, reducing NATO’s future effectiveness and common purpose. The Economist has to earnestly urge Western governments to effectively ‘stay the course’: “There is no stalemate: the campaign is heading steadily in the right direction. The colonel’s territorial writ is shrinking. His oil is running out. Defections from his camp are mounting. His days in power, perhaps also on this earth, are numbered”.

But how did we get here? How did an initial UN Security Council mandate to protect civilians turn into a campaign to oust Colonel Gaddafi and not just a change of leader, but wholesale regime change? I’ve previously pointed to the confusion about the ends of the NATO campaign, and the problem here is that Western justifications for intervention have shifted more firmly towards the moral high ground of demonising Gaddafi, presenting him as someone beyond the pale. Gaddafi is the problem – and therefore someone who “must go now”. In attempting to keep with the mandate of the Security Council resolution, the protection of civilians can only take place with the end of Gaddafi’s rule (or at least this is the claim made now).  In doing so, this has also become the standard by which success is judged, i.e. NATO intervention is a failure if Gaddafi doesn’t relinquish power now. Failure never goes down well at home, and NATO members are loath to acknowledge that they have not met this (self-imposed) standard.

The black-and-white depiction of the Colonel offers moral clarity – but perhaps too much clarity, in becoming the substitute for Western objectives of military operations. There’s no wiggle room here in the ends being sought. And when warplanes over Libya have become the symbol of Western intervention – military means above all else – for as long as Western leaders seek to meet their objectives of Gaddafi’s departure, then so too will they have to continue to conduct airstrikes.

The International Crisis Group put this quite succintly in a briefing last month:

“Their repeatedly proclaimed demand that “Qaddafi must go” systematically confuses two quite different objectives. To insist that, ultimately, he can have no role in the post-Jamahiriya political order is one thing, and almost certainly reflects the opinion of a majority of Libyans as well as of the outside world. But to insist that he must go now, as the precondition for any negotiation, including that of a ceasefire, is to render a ceasefire all but impossible and so to maximise the prospect of continued armed conflict. To insist that he both leave the country and face trial in the International Criminal Court is virtually to ensure that he will stay in Libya to the bitter end and go down fighting.”

The thing about moral crusades is that once embarked on, they are pretty difficult things to compromise on. Having put Gaddafi on a ‘bad guy’ pedestal, there is no way to halt the bombing and still claim some measure of success if Gaddafi still holds power in some form. Good/bad dichotomies are comforting ways of approaching world politics, but not ones without their costs, as NATO members are experiencing.

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One thought on “Libya: When moral crusades are crossed with military force

  1. Gavin says:

    See what you’re getting at on the good/bad dichotomy in your final sentence tho think I just about retain the hope that the eschewing of moral vocabulary along these lines (if you’re implying that may be a better way to go) isnt the answer …- or at least not the final one – here or elsewhere. Appalling tho the employment of such tags as ‘axis of evil’ is/has been, can’t see that jettisoning moral analysis itself (even in spite of such lurid abuse) is a better solution than expanding its scope, increasing consistency, and pushing for its use not as crude ideological legitimation for, but as a vital counterweight to, the banality of the economistic frameworks which underlie the geopolitics of neoliberal western gvmts. Not that prospects along these lines look bright at present, admittedly…

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