[Viewpoint] This mission will be an Odyssey

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[Viewpoint] This mission will be an Odyssey

“Odyssey Dawn” is the code name for the military operation in Libya authorized by United Nations Security Council Resolution 1973 to prevent a massacre of civilians by forces loyal to longtime Libyan strongman Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi.

The coalition, led by the United States, Britain, and France, was mandated to enforce a no-fly zone over Libya starting on March 19, but it now has expanded its campaign to attack Qaddafi’s residence and ground bases and ports. The mission is rapidly “creeping” to possibly include the use of coalition combat troops.

The goal of the military intervention is well-grounded - to protect Libyan civilians from ruthless bloodshed by forces loyal to Qaddafi. The Libyan dictator’s oddities and brutalities, from sponsoring terrorism activities such as the 1988 bombing of a Pan Am passenger plane to the bloody crackdown on his own people, could no longer be tolerated. A victory for the Qaddafi regime and the defeat of rebel forces would be a massive blow to the democratization movement flowing through the Arab world.

But it’s hard to shake off a sinking feeling about this military intervention by the West. According to the “Just War Theory” by Catholic theologian St. Thomas Aquinas, military action or war should be a last resort, exercised only after all peaceful and viable alternatives have been seriously tried and exhausted.

Some say the West acted in a timely way, having learned how dillydallying allowed the war in former Yugoslavia to culminate in the worst civilian massacres in Europe since World War II. But it is nevertheless a pity that the international community failed to do all it can on the diplomatic front before taking military action in Libya.

The problem with the campaign in Libya is that there has not been a thorough examination of what the mission’s goal is and what constitutes success. One of the criteria for going to war under the Just War Theory is that arms should not be used in a futile cause or in a case where disproportionate measures are employed to achieve success. If failure is the result, the justice of intervention can be undermined.

Ominous signs are already appearing on the Libyan front. The coalition cannot agree on the ultimate goal of the operation - whether it is to force Qaddafi out of power, and, if it is, whether expanding the campaign to include ground forces is necessary. The coalition embarked on the mission before it reached a consensus on the basic principles behind the intervention.

Britain and France have been unequivocal about wanting to see Qaddafi go, but the Arab League, which endorsed the intervention, is against broadening the scope of the Western campaign beyond the UN Security Council’s resolution.

In a statement, Amr Moussa, secretary general of the Arab League, said, “What is happening in Libya differs from the aim of imposing a no-fly zone.” He underscored that the UN-endorsed actions are limited to preventing Qaddafi’s air force from attacking civilians. What the Arab community wants is a forced peace and then to resolve the crisis through negotiations.

The United States is also cautious about ground troops. It certainly cannot afford to get involved in another war in the Middle East amid ongoing campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Going back to the Just War Theory, war should be waged when the anticipated benefits are assured to exceed the estimated damages. If the West’s intervention ends up costing more civilian losses, the humanitarian cause will be lost. Qaddafi is already gathering up women and children to use as shields against coalition shelling in Tripoli. The longer the intervention, the greater the civilian losses will be.

Skeptics wonder if Western governments are well-informed and what they hope to gain at the end. If rebel fighters in Benghazi are really fighting for democracy, the West has done right to support them. But what if - as New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman poses - the conflict is a power struggle in a sectarian society with “tribes exploiting the language of democracy?”

In that case, the West will find itself in the middle of a civil conflict siding with a particular tribal force. Footage showed some rebel fighters roaming the streets with the flag of a former monarchy who ruled over the region.

The coalition allies say they can end the campaign within the next three months. But not many agree. As the crisis deepens, “Odyssey Dawn” portends a long and tragic epic. The international community should come up with a better and more effective plan to get the exit strategy right.

*The writer is a professor of political science at Yonsei University.

By Moon Chung-in
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