Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Just War Doctrine and Libya (continued)

Steven E. Meyer, Keith Pavlischek, Brenda Kay Zylstra


I wish this issue were as simple as the "responsibility to protect."  The international community often has not done what it should to protect innocent lives, especially during the 1980s in the Great Lakes region of Africa when 800,000 died.  However, it is much less clear that the "responsibility to protect" is applicable to places such as Bosnia and Libya.  Innocent lives are threatened in Libya by both sides. The international community is essentially intervening in a civil war, which should be seen as something for the people involved to sort out.

Also, while the Obama administration has stated clearly that Gaddafi must go, the U.N. is not working under any such mandate.  They are there only to “protect" innocent civilians.  These differences beg the question: when will we know when the issue is resolved? 

Intervention in this civil war contains further unknowns: we have no idea who the rebels are.  And, more, where does this stop?  The "responsibility to protect" easily could be applied to Yemen, Jordan, and Syria.  President Obama has indicated that we are not likely to intervene in these cases because Libya is "in our interest," while the others are not.  Interesting—because it is not clear why Libya is in our interest (oil?).  More importantly, the responsibility to protect should not be governed by national interest.

Sadly, it appears that this is the same old story of attempting to impose Western-styled state structures and democracy on non-Western areas.  This has never worked, but it is a lesson we never learn.

—Steven E. Meyer is a Professor of National Security Studies and Political Science at the National Defense University, Washington, D.C.  The ideas expressed in this article are those of the author alone.


America’s preemptive military attack against the Libyan regime is just, even though it is entirely a “war of choice.”  Preemptively attacking a regime about to conduct a mass slaughter of innocent civilians easily meets the classic just war criteria of just cause, and right intent. Regarding legitimate authority and last resort, I simply note President Obama’s statement, “As President, I refused to wait for the images of slaughter and mass graves before taking action.” This suggests that the resort to war would have been just if timely action required him to act unilaterally before gaining the approval of the UN or the Arab League.  President Obama holds (rightly) that America is an exceptional nation and that while the approval of other nations is generally preferable to going it alone, it would be unjust to let the slaughter proceed while awaiting permission from the “international community.”  We should applaud the fact that President Obama, despite his fierce criticism of the Bush administration while a candidate, has come to recognize the justice of preemptive, unilateral wars of choice, at least in some cases.  One only wishes that he had sought bipartisan support for this just war of choice from the U.S. Congress, as President Bush did when contemplating military action in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Keith Pavlischek is currently serving in Afghanistan as a DOD civilian. These views are entirely his own and do not reflect the views of the Department of Defense or any other agency of the U.S. Government.  His articles "The Ethics of Counterinsurgency" and "Proportionality in Warfare" have recently been published in The New Atlantis.



Unfortunately the window to approach Libya jus ad bellum may already be closed. The passing of UN Resolution 1973 came just one month after the Libyan protests started. With little public debate, no clear national security interests, and no articulation as to why this humanitarian crisis demands response above all others, the bombing has begun. This is not military intervention as last resort.

Nor does our involvement in Libya pass the jus ad bellum tenets of proper authority or just cause. Neither the United States nor NATO need intervene here; this is a situation tailor-made for the European Union’s security strategy, Mediterranean partnership, and neighborhood policy. Does Gaddafi’s oppression and violence against the Libyan people call for international military action? Perhaps, but the case has not been made.

Finally, the jus ad bellum criteria of a reasonable prospect of success has not been met—not if we seek a functioning Libya. Securing a no-fly zone is one issue; stabilizing a nation after decades of dictatorship is another. We’ve already proven our weakness at the latter.

With jus ad bellum so quickly corrupted, the United States should cede NATO operations to European Union states and involve the Arab League as much as possible. Justice is not served by far-flung, poorly thought out military campaigns.

—Brenda Kay Zylstra is a dual Master's student in the Harris School of Public Policy and the Committee on International Relations at the University of Chicago.




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