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. 

Wing Commander Mike Bracken, NATO’s military spokesman,  articulated this logic in his description of NATO air strikes against a Gaddafi bunker. “Gaddafi is not a target as an individual. Our mission is to deal with command-and-control, to protect the civilian population and to deliver the mandate that United Nations set us.” He added, “We do not know if anybody or who was in that bunker. It had been quite clearly used as a command-and-control centre to deliver attacks on the civilian community.” 

Lt. Gen. Charles Bouchard, Commander of Operation Unified Protector, described the same important distinction. “All NATO’s targets are military in nature and have been clearly linked to the Gaddafi regime’s systematic attacks on the Libyan population and populated areas. We do not target individuals,” Bouchard stated back in May. NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen has also reinforced the difference to the press. “We do not target individuals. We are targeting military facilities including command and control centers.”  

Locklear, Bracken, Bouchard, Rasmussen and others have been consistent and clear: NATO is not targeting Gaddafi because it is not launching air strikes specifically to kill him. NATO does consider Gaddafi a legitimate target and will not stop an air strike against a facility simply because Gaddafi might be in it. Indeed, they would likely consider that a bonus. 

A final distinction should be recognized to avoid another misunderstanding. Unlike Gaddafi, civilians are not legitimate targets and NATO goes to great lengths to avoid harming civilians in Libya. NATO has stopped air strikes because civilians might be harmed. NATO has acknowledged that some of its bombs have caused civilian casualties, but these were accidents and unintentional. The men and women protecting the democracies in NATO, our coalition partners and the people of Libya, take increased risks each day specifically to prevent such accidents from occurring again. 

Gaddafi is not a civilian. He is in command of the forces attacking civilians in Libya and is a legitimate target if he is killed. It is important for the public to accurately understand NATO’s UN-sanctioned use of force in Libya. 

Dr. Benitez is the Director of NATOSource and a Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council.