Responsibility to Protect Gives Way to Targeted Assassination and Regime Change in Libya

Just two days before the assassination of Osama bin Laden by U.S. special forces eclipsed all other newsworthy issues, another targeted assassination was carried out by NATO forces in Tripoli, except there, the target was missed. That target was Libyan leader Muamar Gaddafi, and the missile that struck the home of his youngest son didn’t take the life it sought. Instead, the bombing of the home, located in a residential neighborhood of the Libyan capital, killed the 29-year old German-educated Saif al-Arab al-Gaddafi and three of his nieces and nephews, all under the age of 12. Apparently, Gaddafi was inside the house with his wife at the time, but both escaped unharmed. Several critics have spoken out against the targeted assassination of the Libyan head of state, but NATO officials have offered little response. They claim that the attack in the middle of an upscale neighborhood around 8 in the evening on Saturday April 30 was carried out against “a military command and control building with a precision strike.” Military paraphernalia recovered from the rubble included the video game Modern Warfare 2 for the Playstation console, and children’s books.

But the mainstream media largely ignored the “accidental” killings of four innocent civilians by NATO forces on April 30 in their mission to protect civilians, as it erupted on May 2 in a chorus of praise for president Obama. The fact that targeted assassination ‘worked’ to put an end to the life of alleged 9/11 mastermind bin Laden conveniently eases the public into acquiescence with the plainly illegal strategy, drawing praise from even self-proclaimed ‘critics’ like Jon Stewart, whose ‘Daily Show’ featured a positively nauseating celebration of the supposed terrorist’s death. The piece ends with Stewart whooping, “we’re back baby!” as the map behind him shows an animated map in which the state of Florida inflates into the Atlantic to resemble a fully engorged penis, “and,” he adds as a scrotal-shaped landmass appears in the Gulf of Mexico, “our testicles have descended.”

Indeed, the macho rhetoric employed by Stewart, by the college students seen cheering ‘USA’ in the streets the night of bin Laden’s death, and by the entire lexicon of the so-call Global War on Terror, like any form of phallo-centric chauvinism, betrays a deeper insecurity. The paternalistic messaging that was used to sell the invasion of Libya to the American people (as well as to the French, British, Spanish, Italian and other NATO-member states’ populations) — that NATO was enforcing UN Security Council Resolution 1973 and taking up the ‘responsibility to protect’ — painted a rather thin veneer over the geopolitical motives that laid behind. As NATO unsuccessfully denies that its air-strikes are seeking to murder Gaddafi, one must wonder how far Western governments will go to set up a puppet regime under the auspices of neoliberal opportunist Mahmoud Jibril’s National Transitional Council. It now appears that the British will overtly fund the rebel forces, and it seems likely that the rest of the allies will follow suit. Meanwhile, the civilian death toll of NATO strikes on Tripoli had exceeded 40 by the end of March.

And as if the ‘accidental’ killing of so many of the civilians NATO is supposed to be protecting were not enough to show that the multinational cold-war military alliance isn’t in Libya for humanitarian reasons, its response to the humanitarian refugee crisis that is filling the Mediterranean with bodies certainly is. The Guardian has reported that in the last month alone, some 800 migrant workers who left the Libyan mainland never arrived at their European destinations and are presumed dead. Now, the participating armies have on their hands the blood of 61 African migrant workers whose escape boat ran out of fuel about 60 miles off the Libyan coast.

The boat’s passengers managed to reach an Eritrean priest in Rome via satellite phone, who relayed their call to the Italian Coast Guard. The Coast Guard told the priest that the boat’s location had been pinpointed and that the alarm had been raised to help the refugees. Soon a military helicopter of unknown origin lowered water bottles and biscuits to the wayward boat, and informed them that help was on the way. But help never came. Days later, a French aircraft carrier came into view. So close was the Charles de Gaulle to the drifting boat that it would have been impossible for such a well-equipped vessel not to have taken notice of the refugees. It sent out two sorties of fighter jets, but no rescue boats, despite passengers’ frantic attempts to contact the sailors on board. After 16 days at sea, 61 of the 72 passengers had starved to death, and one of the 11 survivors dropped dead shortly after stepping foot on land as the boat washed ashore near the Libyan city of Zeitan.

NATO could have prevented these deaths, and more, if only it would spend a bit less time and effort trying to effect a favorable regime change in Libya, and a bit more on its “responsibility to protect.” But perhaps the best thing NATO could do now is follow the Hippocratic oath – if you can do no good, at least do no harm – and cease the bombing of Libya. From there a ceasefire could be negotiated between rebel forces and the government, with regional bodies such as the Arab League and the African Union playing mediating roles, and the Libyan people could resolve their own political issues without foreign intervention. NATO hasn’t had any real reason to exist for the last twenty years, and it is about time for what has become an openly imperialist force to disband once and for all.

Noah Gimbel is an intern with Foreign Policy in Focus. He is currently working on a book on universities and empire and can be reached at ngimbel@ips-dc.org.