Is Military Operation In Libya A 'Just War'? The Obama administration insists the military intervention in Libya is a humanitarian effort to protect civilians. But if the real mission proves to be regime change, that may change the equation. Stephen Carter, author of The Violence of Peace, explains the criteria for a "just war."
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Is Military Operation In Libya A 'Just War'?

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Is Military Operation In Libya A 'Just War'?

Is Military Operation In Libya A 'Just War'?

Is Military Operation In Libya A 'Just War'?

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

The Obama administration insists the military intervention in Libya is a humanitarian effort to protect civilians. But if the real mission proves to be regime change, that may change the equation. Stephen Carter, author of The Violence of Peace, explains the criteria for a "just war."


The war in Libya continues, as coalition forces led by the United States shifted targets from air fields and air defenses to tanks and artillery. An American admiral told reporters today that pro-Gadhafi forces continue to violate the Security Council resolution by continuing to attack in some cities. President Obama says command will shift in a few days and that the U.S. will be in more of a support role, and the debate continues over the justification for another war in the Middle East.

Does protection of civilians and the humanitarian cause make Libya a just war? If so, does that hold up if the real goal is regime change? Our phone number: 800-989-8255. Email: You can join the conversation on our website, as well. That's at Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

We spoke with novelist and Yale law Professor Stephen Carter about his book, "The Violence of Peace: America's Wars in the Age of Obama." And he joins us again from a studio at Yale, where he's a professor of law.

Nice to have you back.

Professor STEPHEN CARTER (Yale Law School): Thanks for having me back.

CONAN: And is the humanitarian aim to protect civilians anything more than a fig leaf to win a Security Council resolution when the leaders of Britain, France and the United States all say, Gadhafi must go?

Prof. CARTER: You know, President Obama, as long ago as the campaign for president, said he believed it was appropriate to use military force to protect civilians who are being slaughtered by their own government. So he, at least, is being entirely consistent with the position he's taken over time.

But there's certainly a lot of people - both in international law and philosophers who think about just war - who are concerned that even when you start with the best of intentions and you're trying to protect civilians like those clearly being slaughtered in Libya, you end up in a war that simply grows and grows and grows, because war moves in unpredictable directions, and you can't tell what's going to end up happening.

CONAN: The president said - the Security Council Resolution 1973 specifically excludes ground forces. The president said he will not send ground troops into Libya. Yet, as you say, well, sometimes things change.

Prof. CARTER: Well, ground troops have already gone into Libya, in fact, to rescue the downed pilots from the plane that crashed because of mechanical failure. Now, imagine if those troops then come under attack by Libyan troops, then more ground troops would have to go in and rescue them. It's easy to see how these things can grow.

In his autobiography, President Obama wrote: War is hell, but sometimes you have to do it, anyway. And I think he really sees this as one that has to be done, anyway.

But I think you're - the premise of your question is right. This is clearly not just a no-fly zone. They're not just protecting civilians. Even as we speak, they're attacking - the coalition forces are attacking armed columns that are approaching the cities of Misrata and Ajdabiya. And they're attacking the columns to prevent them from expanding Gadhafi's control over the country.

It's perfectly plain, as the U.K. defense minister said this morning, that the goal is not simply to have a no-fly zone, but to render the Libyan military no longer capable of undertaking any operations.

CONAN: And thereby, almost by definition, opening them, making them vulnerable to rebels.

Prof. CARTER: Oh, I think that's right. I think that if the Libyan military is incapacitated, and I think it's quite striking that the coalition has been attacking all of their command and control centers to make it difficult for them to get order to their forces. If the Libyan military disintegrates, then, of course, the rebels take over the country.

CONAN: And is that okay? If that's an unstated goal, because the U.N. Security Council resolution doesn't say anything about regime change.

Prof. CARTER: Well, the U.N. Security Council resolution may be, as you said, the cover for the operation. But no matter what the president may say, this is an American operation. This is an operation that is largely done by American ordnance, American logistics, American technology and the 40 ships of the American Sixth Fleet in the Mediterranean who are currently bombarding Libya with sortie after sortie of planes and missiles.

The other coalition allies are contributing a plane here, a missile there, but this is basically an American war. And no matter how we try to describe it as something else, I think the longer it goes, the more an American war it's going to become, not less, because the allies simply don't have the money, frankly, or the munitions to stay in the war more than a couple of weeks.

CONAN: You pointed out in a piece you wrote for The Daily Beast today that of the 124 cruise missiles launched against Libyan air defense systems in the first night, they were fired by American and British warships. Indeed, they were. The Americans fired 122. The British fired two.

Prof. CARTER: Yeah. Those are the numbers that I gleaned from the stories in the papers. Now, the British have since claimed that they actually fired six, not two. But if the British number was six, that still means the American number was 118.

CONAN: And that is - yet there is clearly an effort to hand over command and control of this operation to NATO or a subset of NATO that would be acceptable to everybody.

Prof. CARTER: Oh, I think that the president would very much like to do that. The problem is that Germany, a major NATO member, wants no part of it. Italy, an important NATO member, wants to be part of it but has ordered its pilots apparently not to fire, which is an interesting problem.

Turkey, a major member of NATO, is skeptical that it should be a NATO mission. France, a major member of NATO, is skeptical that it should be a NATO mission. So it's not clear who you could get to take the reins even if you wanted to hand it over.

Moreover, even if it becomes a NATO mission, if the war continues more than a couple of weeks, it's going to be the American military that's going to continue to carry the load, and we here in America have to decide whether that's something that we want to do or not.

CONAN: And as you look at - your book was a long examination of the tradition and the history of just war and how President Obama's - how he's handling the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, how that does or does not fit into that category. Have you thought about it in terms of Libya?

Prof. CARTER: It's striking that when President Obama was asked during the campaign about humanitarian force abroad, the example that he was given by one questioner after another was Darfur and the slaughter being carried on in the south of Sudan. So his focus was clearly already on North Africa. But I think it's clear that when he was thinking about regimes killing their own citizens, he was imagining genocide.

He was imagining people being killed for racial or tribal or religious differences. I don't think he was envisioning intervening in a civil war. Nevertheless, we're in a situation now where although there is a civil war in Libya, it's a civil war that was so one-sided, was such a slaughter, that the - I think the moral sense of a lot of people in the West recoiled, and it was that moral sense that led to the U.N. resolution.

CONAN: And we'll get to calls in just a minute, but one other thing that candidate Obama said was that the president of the United States should always ask Congress for a declaration of war...

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: least consult with Congress before commitment of American soldiers.

Prof. CARTER: Yeah, and that is a problem here. The president, in his letter to Congress that he sent after the operation began, implied that there wasn't really time to consult because of the humanitarian tragedy.

The notion seemed to be, if you wait another day, several thousand more people will die. The city of Benghazi may be about to fall and so on. And so I guess I understand the point about time. But the truth is, if he wanted to build congressional support for this, he could have started several weeks before.

It's not as though there was any need to wait until the last minute to put together a coalition to do this. So I think there was time to consult with Congress. And whatever one may think about the president's constitutional powers, it's certainly best not to start out a war with Congress mad at you.

CONAN: We're talking with Stephen Carter, the author of "The Violence of Peace: America's Wars in the Age of Obama." And we want to hear from you on this conversation. Is this a just war, the American-led war against Libya? And does that change if the real aim of the conflict is regime change?

800-989-8255. Email: And Michael's on the line. Michael calling from Tucson.

MICHAEL (Caller): Yes, hi. Nice to be on your show. Actually, I would say that this is not a just war. And you can look back. Unfortunately, we never learn from the history. The same thing happened in the Balkans. We went to quote-unquote "save" the Albanian population from being slaughtered.

And all said and done, we found out that the whole hoopla was really not exactly as it was portrayed before trying to bombing the whole Serbia down to Stone Age. And what happened - the outcome was that the 1.8 million majority population of Albania drove literally the 200,000 Serbs. So it became a reverse - basically, they...

CONAN: What you're saying is they took sides in a civil war where they should not have done that.

MICHAEL: That's exactly right. And at the end, we told the Albanians that they can have their own independence, whereas actually - yeah, I know, I'm drawing conclusions, but basically Kosovo is where all the Serbian kings were buried. And you know, to take that land and give it to Albanians, which they already have their own country, it was something totally, you know...

CONAN: I think you may be understating the degree of Serbian atrocities in Kosovo. But anyway, Stephen Carter, he says it was a mistake then and it's a mistake now.

Prof. CARTER: Well, I don't want to re-fight that the conflict in Kosovo now. It's been controversial for a long time. I do tend to think there was a pretty good ground for going in. I understand that Michael disagrees. But the question he's raising, the deeper one - is whether taking sides in what amounts to a civil war can ever be a justified humanitarian intervention. I think the answer to be yes, it can, but only for taking sides because one side really is being treated in an inhumane manner, if the government is slaughtering its civilian population to win the civil war, something like that.

So for example, the governor of Sudan describes what's going on in the South as a civil war. And so the slaughter - and there has been slaughter - in Darfur, it says, is in a sense a byproduct of the civil war. That may or may not be true, but there's still a slaughter. And the West still has done nothing to stop it.

And so I think here in Libya, from the point of view of President Obama, what's happening is, yes, it's civil war, but the government of Libya is conducting it through deeply unjust means and is slaughtering civilians in its effort to win. And that's the justification. One may quarrel with the justification, but it's important to be clear on what the justification is.

CONAN: Michael, thanks very much for the call. We're taking with Stephen Carter about just war and Libya. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's go next to - is this Huey(ph) or Hue(ph)?

HUGH(ph) (Caller): Hugh in Oklahoma.

CONAN: Hugh. I got it wrong both times. Go ahead, please. I'm sorry.

HUGH: So I'd like to focus on the prevention aspect. We have two examples on opposite sides. If we allow something to continue, it can become Rwanda. And if we prevent - if we take preemptive action -and I don't mean the George Bush preemptive action, I mean something that's already started and going in a certain direction, we can prevent it from getting worse, such as in Bosnia. If we were to let it go in a direction of Rwanda, by the time we knew it was going in that direction, it would already be too late.

And I also would like to know, as a secondary but related question to your guest's earlier countdown of the cruise missile strikes - that also ties into technology, not just whose war it is. Does he have a count on how many sorties of airplanes - where the French and the British do have similar technologies - how many sorties they did? I'm concerned your guest has been selective in those countings.

Prof. CARTER: Two things. First, as to your second question, on the first day of combat, the only day that we have numbers for, most of the sorties were flown by Americans. That's not a technological matter. That's because we have so many more planes down there than they do. The British have no aircraft carriers. They don't have one to their name. The French have one aircraft carrier; it is currently in the Mediterranean. It's not clear how long it can stay.

Once the French aircraft carrier leaves, the only way planes will be able to fly missions will be off the American aircraft carriers or off the American and Italian air bases that are being made available for that purpose. But the planes in the area at the moment that are flying the sorties are mainly Americans.

Now, by next week, or actually by this week, the missions - the air missions are supposed to be mainly the other coalition partners and not the United States.

CONAN: I believe they're going to be flying from land bases in places like Sicily, northern Italy...

Prof. CARTER: No, that's right. That's what I meant by southern Italy, yes. And they're supposed to be mainly coalition partners flying the air missions. The question isn't if they can do it. The question is, how long can they maintain it? These planes are very expensive to operate, especially on long missions. And countries like France may not have the money in their defense budgets to support a very long series of sorties.

CONAN: Okay. Huey(ph), I apologize for mispronouncing your name. Thanks very much for the call. Hugh, I think. Bye-bye.

HUGH: It's Hugh, that's right.

CONAN: All right. Let's see if we can go next to - this is Roland(ph), Roland with us from Bloomington, North Carolina.

ROLAND (Caller): It's Wilmington, North Carolina. But I had two comments. One is that I think it's a little bit premature to call it a war. I mean, I know that we've declared the no-fly zone and they have fired on targets. But I think that it's - I think it's premature to call this a war. I think this is very unlike Iraq or Afghanistan, where we have boots on the ground. I think that this is not - I think it's premature to call this a war. I think...

CONAN: Do you think it's hard to tell the difference between a war and something else if you're in Libya?

ROLAND: Well, I mean, I'm saying - from a U.S. standpoint, I think to say that the U.S. is at war with Libya, I think, is premature.

CONAN: I think bombing a country is an act of war, so...

ROLAND: Well, it's an act of war. But I mean, I think that to say that we are at war with Libya, I just feel that that's a little bit premature. I think that that this is very unlike, you know, Iraq or even, you know, let's say Somalia. I mean, we have troops on the ground there but we weren't necessarily at war with Somalia. That's just my perspective.

And my second comment is that I feel like, you know, I think the times have changed such that the attitude now seems very critical of Barack Obama, and I think some of it is understandable. But I do feel that a lot of it is unfair. I think this is a very opportune time to beat up on the president. And I think that unlike other times in our past, we are not - in the past we would rally around the president. We would support the president. In recent past, George W. Bush, and of course...

CONAN: I get your point. I don't mean to cut you off, but I wanted to give Stephen Carter a chance to respond.

Prof. CARTER: Yes. Very quickly, I understand why some people want to say this isn't a war. But when you attack another sovereign country, that's war, and it's hard to call it anything else. It may not be the same as the Iraq war. It's a much smaller war. It may in the long run be more manageable. We certainly hope so. But it's certainly a war.

As to attacking Obama versus attacking Bush or someone else, look, he's the president of the United States. You take your chances. You take your lumps. I myself think this war in Libya is defensible. I think there is a justification for it, and I would like to see the president make a stronger case for this war. But if people disagree with that, if people think this war is not justifiable, then it doesn't matter who the president is and he's got to take his lumps.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the call, Roland. Thank you. And Stephen Carter, appreciate your time.

Prof. CARTER: It's been my pleasure. Thanks very much for having me back on the show.

CONAN: Stephen Carter, professor of law at Yale, the author of several books, most recently "The Violence of Peace: America's Wars in the Age of Obama." He joined us from a studio at the university there in New Haven.

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