Mirror of Justice

A blog dedicated to the development of Catholic legal theory.
Affiliated with the Program on Church, State & Society at Notre Dame Law School.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Thanking President Obama for Saving Lives in Libya

There is much to criticize about President Obama’s foreign and military policy toward Libya, and one cannot help being struck by the wide breadth of criticism from both Left and Right, from both the traditional news media and modern cable-news networks ― and even here on Mirror of Justice. We also may question the coherence of a presidential policy that promises to protect the Libyan people from massacre, while shying away from taking direct action to bring about the ouster of the Libyan leader from whom that risk of a bloodbath came and may come again. I worry especially about whether the United States under President Obama has the staying power to remain engaged and ready to stand against mass violence in Libya, once the notoriously short attention span of the world and media has shifted away.

In addition, there are important questions to ask about use of American military force within constitutional constraints. For all the infamy piled on President Bush by those who supported President Obama in the last election, President Bush sought and obtained congressional approval of military action in Iraq. President Obama has acted unilaterally and failed even to seriously consult with congressional leaders, spending much of the period leading up to military intervention on a trip out of the country.

But, while acknowledging these criticisms and challenging questions and agreeing that they deserve continuing attention in the coming days, I want to focus on the fundamental “rightness” of what President Obama has done and on much of what he said last night:

The United States and the world faced a choice. Kadafi declared that he would show “no mercy” to his own people. He compared them to rats, and threatened to go door to door to inflict punishment. In the past, we had seen him hang civilians in the streets, and kill over 1,000 people in a single day. Now, we saw regime forces on the outskirts of the city. We knew that if we waited one more day, Benghazi ― a city nearly the size of Charlotte ― could suffer a massacre that would have reverberated across the region and stained the conscience of the world. It was not in our national interest to let that happen. I refused to let that happen.

Richard Cohen put it in much the same terms in his column today:

[Saving lives] is what this operation is all about ― the prospect that Moammar Gaddafi was going to settle the score in the most horrific way imaginable. Based upon his record and clear indication that he is crazy, a bloodbath was in prospect. What should the world have done? Nothing? Squeeze Gaddafi with sanctions, seize his Swiss accounts, and padlock his son’s London townhouse? None of these measures would have had immediate impact. Sanctions are a slow-working poison. A bullet was needed.

So, thank you, President Obama. And thank God that the United States and its allies were willing to be an instrument to staunch the shedding of innocent blood in Libya.

In the coming days and years, we should reconsider how Catholic “Just War” doctrine applies to the use of force, not to deter international aggression or for a particular nation’s self-defense, but to deliver the innocent from the hands of evil. Self-defense may be a justification for the use of force, but it ultimately is a self-centered one (not that basic personal safety is at all illegitimate as an interest). But, as President Obama rightly said last night: “There will be times, though, when our safety is not directly threatened, but our interests and values are.”

Catholic teaching should be and is compatible with such an approach. Father Raymond De Souza writes:

The world does not need the Church to be a cheerleader for war, which always represents a failure of politics to secure liberty and justice. But what of those occasions when armed force is necessary to secure liberty and justice against a malevolent regime― as is the case in Gadhafi’s Libya? While war itself brings its own horrors, if it is a moral duty, ought not the attempt to discharge that duty bring encouragement from Christian pastors?

Near the end of his life, Pope John Paul II began to establish the case for military intervention for humanitarian reasons:

[A]n offense against human rights is an offense against the conscience of humanity as such, an offense against humanity itself. The duty of protecting these rights therefore extends beyond the geographical and political borders within which they are violated. Crimes against humanity cannot be considered an internal affair of a nation. . . .

Clearly, when a civilian population risks being overcome by the attacks of an unjust aggressor and political efforts and non-violent defence prove to be of no avail, it is legitimate and even obligatory to take concrete measures to disarm the aggressor. These measures however must be limited in time and precise in their aims. They must be carried out in full respect for international law, guaranteed by an authority that is internationally recognized and, in any event, never left to the outcome of armed intervention alone.

Let us pray for peace ― not the false peace of international indifference and passivity, but real peace in a new post-Kadafi/Gaddafi Libya.

Greg Sisk


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The quote from the Richard Cohen article -- "[Saving lives] is what this operation is all about" -- immediately brought to mind the Arizona Catholic hospital/abortion/ill mother case, given the dual meaning of "operation." Cohen's quote probably was said verbatim by someone who believes the hospital acted properly. If the US Libyan "operation" has resulted in innocent death(s), would a "Just War" analysis still find it OK, whereas the Arizona hospital innocent death/abortion is wrong in the Church's eyes? What if the president was told there would definitely be innocent death in the strikes, and still acted the same way? Is it just a matter of specific intent (hospital intended to kill baby to save mother; US did not intend to kill innocents to save others in strikes)?

Posted by: DFoley | Mar 29, 2011 9:34:57 PM

The case for this particular act of war is fuzzier, I think. I agree that intervention on behalf of the innocent is just, so this analysis is valid on its face. The problem is that it distorts the facts on the ground in Libya. In general, it is a hard situation anyway because while in principle intervention on behalf of the innocent is just, "peasant uprisings" are easy for outside powers to engineer.

Posted by: Joel Clarke Gibbons | Mar 29, 2011 9:45:30 PM

Around the world -- the rest of the world excluding the White House and Foggy Bottom -- our attack on Libya looks like neo-colonialism all over again, and the fact that it was the last colonial power, France, that conjured it up does nothing to mitigate that impression.

In fact, it looks dangerously like a declaration of war on the whole world. It looks like a declaration that "You're next." After all, how hard is it for the CIA or Mossad or MI6 to go into a country, hire a bunch of malcontents and arm and pay them, perhaps even to provide them with mercenaries to fight with them, and to start a civil war. Once the war is on, we declare that our side are innocent civilians -- a claim that American people are in no way able to verify for themselves -- and then to start bombing the hell out of the country. It's perfect!

It becomes even more perfect when the country just happens to be the locus of lots and lots of oil and natural gas. AND if most of its goodies lie cheek by jowl with a very poor (read Egyptian) giant that has long hungered for a share of the spoils. We seem to have forgotten that in the recent past, Egypt invaded Libya in hopes of snatching precisely the eastern provinces that are leading the rebellion.

We are also forgetting that once we own Libya we will have direct access to Darfur -- always the object of John McCain's desire -- which has truly vast amounts of oil and natural gas.

The foregoing speculation may be unfair in this case, or it may be spot on, but in any case this is how our intervention looks to everyone else around the world.

Posted by: Joel Clarke Gibbons | Mar 30, 2011 6:46:40 AM

I await the apologies to President Bush from those critical of our humanitarian mission in Iraq.

Posted by: Fr. J | Mar 30, 2011 1:41:26 PM

Dear Mr Bush,

Thank uou so much for destroying the history of the world's oldest civilization, for causing an internecine war, including integral participation by American troops, that has killed well of 100,000 Iraqis in the last eight years and has driven around 5 million of them into internal or external exile. We thank you especially for ordering the use of White Phospherous on al Fallujah, thereby incinerating so many occupants of the city -- men, women, and children -- without leaving behind any corpses that would need to be disposed of at great cost.

Oh, lest we overlook other boons, thanks so much for arming and supporting the independence movement in Kurdistan, contrary to International Law, and with the aid of Israel, sending the Kurds into Turkey and Iran on terrorist missions against those countries. And of course who could overlook the MKO and their terrorist attacks within Iran. The practice of dividing up countries, exemplified by Iraq, has contributed so much to the theory of imperialism, showing us how to dominate the world by assuring that in the end noone else has the protection of a state large enough to even think of defying our will.

Among benefactors of mankind, you stand out as being the only one I can think of who parachutes onto aircraft carriers. That may seem a small distinction at this time, but it would be churlish of us to snear at so unique and memmorable an achievement.

Posted by: Joel Clarke Gibbons | Mar 30, 2011 3:27:27 PM

Dear Leader Mr. Obama,

Thank you for bombing a country with which we are not at war and did not attack us. You want to save lives, but what about those in Dafur, Iran, and Syria? Are you going to bomb them too? Are you also going to help the only democracy in the Middle East...Israel as they are being attacked by Muslim terrorists? But it is nice to see you attacking Islamic imperialists. I look forward to you fighting some wars that are in the interests of the United States. Uh no blood for oil! Amen

Posted by: Fr. J | Mar 31, 2011 5:33:24 PM

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- At least 40 Libyan civilians have been killed as a consequence of airstrikes carried out by the United States and other Western powers, the leading church official in Libya said. "The so-called humanitarian raids have caused dozens of victims among civilians in some areas of Tripoli," the Libyan capital, Bishop Giovanni Innocenzo Martinelli, the apostolic vicar of Tripoli, told the Vatican's missionary news agency Fides March 31. "I gathered testimony from trustworthy people. In particular, in the neighborhood of Buslim, the bombardments caused the collapse of a civilian residence building, resulting in the deaths of 40 people," Bishop Martinelli said. The bishop said that while the bombing raids aim at precise targets, they have an impact on nearby buildings. Two hospitals have been damaged, he said, including one in Mizda, a city about 90 miles from Tripoli. News reports said 13 people were injured when a hospital at Mizda was damaged in an air raid on a nearby munitions depot. Bishop Martinelli, who has called for mediation by the African Union in the conflict, has been critical of the military operation launched by the United States, France and Great Britain in support of rebels seeking to oust Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi. On March 17, the United Nations passed a resolution that said member nations may use "all necessary measures" to protect Libyan civilians. "For all one knows, the military action may be causing victims among the very civilians that they say are being protected by these military operations," the bishop said March 30.

Posted by: Fr. J | Mar 31, 2011 6:00:08 PM