From Jorge Benitez, the New Atlanticist: Josh Rogin’s story in Foreign Policy, “Exclusive: Top U.S. admiral admits we are trying to kill Gaddafi,” sparked considerable media attention and strengthened the perception that NATO’s air strikes in Libya are targeting Muammar Gaddafi. Two weeks earlier, Fran Townsend on CNN ran a similar story with the headline, “NATO official: Gaddafi a legitimate target.” While the two stories appear to state the same revelation, the older CNN headline is accurate but the recent FP headline is not. The difference is that recognizing someone as a legitimate target is not the same as targeting that person. This may appear to be a superficial legal nuance, but it also has serious political, military, and social consequences.
Unfortunately, too many headlines misunderstand and misrepresent NATO’s policy on Gaddafi. Rogin’s story is based on Congressman Mike Turner’s interpretation of statements made to him by U.S. Admiral Samuel Locklear, commander of the NATO Joint Operations Command in Naples. According to Turner, “Admiral Locklear explained that the scope of civil protection was being interpreted to permit the removal of the chain of command of Gaddafi’s military, which includes Qaddafi.” This explanation by Locklear is simply a repetition of official NATO policy which has been stated publicly on multiple occasions. Turner interpreted the explanation differently. Turner told Rogin, “I believed that we were [targeting Gaddafi] but that confirmed it. . . . I believe the scope that NATO is pursuing is beyond what is contemplated in civil protection, so they’re exceeding the mission.”
Locklear did not say that NATO was targeting Gaddafi. Furthermore, NATO is not exceeding its mission, because protecting civilians requires eliminating military forces that attack them. This means all those involved in attacking civilians in Libya, from the soldiers who fire their AK-47s to the commanders who give the orders, are legitimate targets for NATO.
Accusing NATO of targeting Gaddafi is like accusing NATO of targeting “Private Abdul Smith” for shooting rockets at civilians or “General Hassan Jones” for giving “Smith” the order to fire. It is simply not true. NATO is not targeting “Smith,” “Jones,” Gaddafi, or any individual in Libya. NATO is targeting the chain of command that is continuing to order Gaddafi’s soldiers to attack civilians. Gaddafi is part of that chain of command—indeed, the most significant part— and thus a legitimate target, along with every other member of his regime that is giving or following orders to attack civilians. . . .