Kinetic Military Action Against Libya’s Archeological Sites?

Reports circulated on June 15, 2011 that the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) would not rule out bombing ancient Roman ruins in Libya if it knew Muammar Gaddafi’s soldiers were hiding military equipment in them. For those who appreciate the importance of Libya’s Roman archeological sites, the most well preserved in all the Mediterranean, this is worrying news. The gravity of the situation is perhaps best summed up by an online TIME Magazine photo essay originally titled, “See Libya’s Roman Ruins Before Nato Bombs Them“, but apparently quickly changed by the magazine’s editors to the less provocative, “Libya’s Roman Ruins.”

The ancient Roman city of Leptis Magna, 81 miles from the Libyan capital of Tripoli, is identified as an important World Heritage Site by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). Irina Bokova, the Director-General of UNESCO, has called on the warring parties to “respect the Hague Convention on the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict” and to “keep military operations away from cultural sites.” Ms. Bokova reminded NATO that of the ten countries involved in the NATO bombing of Libya, eight of them “are party to the Convention” – the United Kingdom is noticeably absent as a signatory nation.

Fighting between Libyan government soldiers and rebel forces has occurred near Leptis Magna, and the insurgents have accused Gaddafi of hiding military equipment, munitions, and troops among the ruins. Oddly, NATO has not verified rebel claims, a simple thing to do with aerial surveillance photography, instead NATO seems to have placed archeological sites in their crosshairs. An unnamed NATO official responded to the rebel allegations by saying “We will strike military vehicles, military forces, military equipment or military infrastructure that threaten Libyan civilians as necessary.”

Located on the Mediterranean coast, Leptis Magna was initially a Phoenician port city and trading center. It eventually grew to be part of the Roman Empire in 146 BC, but attained distinction when Septimius Severus became Emperor in 193 BC. Born in Leptis Magna, Severus developed his home city using all the power and resources available to him as Emperor of Rome, the result was the transformation of Leptis into one of the most important cities in all of Africa, it certainly turned out to be the most significant and beautiful of all Roman cities in Africa. You can get a glimpse of the magnificence of this ancient wonder by viewing this short video. No rational person would dare think of dropping bombs on Leptis Magna, for any possible reason, any more than they would consider dropping high explosives on Egypt’s Great Pyramid of Giza or India’s Taj Mahal – both of which are also UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

Perhaps concerns that war will irrevocably damage or obliterate Libya’s ancient Roman ruins are overheated, after all, President Obama insists he is not conducting a “war” on Libya, just a “kinetic military action.” Accordingly, if Leptis Magna is reduced to nothing by NATO bombs, the history books may read that it was a consequence of an intermittent kinetic military action.

Article I of the U.S. Constitution states that Congress is solely responsible for declaring war, but Congress never authorized military action against Libya, and President Obama never asked Congress to do so. Presidents Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon plunged the United States into a catastrophic land war in Vietnam without congressional authorization; each president escalated the conflict, despite the war’s staggering unpopularity and the absence of a formal declaration of war. The U.S. Congress responded by passing the War Powers Act in 1973. Largely thought of as a means to prevent future Vietnam-like wars, the act requires a president to obtain congressional approval for armed intervention within 60 days of a conflict being initiated, and if such approval is not obtained a president then has an additional 30 days to cease fighting.

On June 15 President Obama sent a 38-page report to Congress arguing that U.S. involvement in Libya falls short of “full-blown hostilities.” Mr. Obama insists he can go on attacking Libya without Congressional approval since what the U.S. military is doing there does “not involve sustained fighting or active exchanges of fire with hostile forces, nor do they involve U.S. ground troops.” Mr. Obama contends that he is only “supporting” operations being carried out by NATO, and his actions are not in violation of the War Powers Act. These are simply weasel words from the president.

On June 9, 2011 the Financial Times obtained and published a U.S. Defense Department memo having to do with U.S. contributions to NATO’s “Operation Unified Protector” military operations against Libya. The document stated U.S. military action in Libya is costing approximately $2 million per day. The Financial Times article also revealed the U.S. as the largest single contributor to NATO military operations in Libya, having conducted “70 per cent of the reconnaissance missions, over 75 per cent of the refuelling flights and 27 per cent of all air sorties.” Moreover, “the U.S. has about 75 aircraft, including drones, involved in the operations and since the end of March has conducted about 2,600 aircraft sorties and about 600 combat sorties.” In his final address before retiring this month, Defense Secretary Robert Gates noted the U.S. pays 75 percent of NATO defense spending. I would also add that U.S. Navy four-star admiral James G. Stavridis, is the Commander of NATO central command.

Mr. Obama’s kinetic military action in Libya certainly looks like a U.S. war to me.

In his report to Congress contending the U.S. is not at war with Libya, Mr. Obama conceded that the first two months of military operations against Libya have cost the Pentagon $716 million. By the end of September U.S. military operations will have cost the U.S. taxpayer at least $1.1 billion – at the “current scale of operations.” What the cost of military operations will continue to be after September is anyone’s guess, but I am reminded of former U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell quoting the so-called pottery barn rule when advising former President George W. Bush in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq – “You break it, you own it.

In all fairness, President Obama does have his supporters when it comes to flaunting the U.S. Constitution and the War Powers Act. The former Deputy Assistant Attorney General for the Bush administration, John Yoo, author of the infamous memos that determined waterboarding was not torture but a legal form of interrogation, expressed praise for President Obama’s Libya war strategy. In a Wall Street Journal opinion piece titled “Antiwar Senator, War-Powers President“, Mr. Yoo wrote:

“President Barack Obama has again flip-flopped on national security—and we can all be grateful. Having kept Guantanamo Bay open, resumed military commission trials for terrorists, and expanded the use of drones, the president has now ordered the U.S. military into action without Congress’s blessing. Imagine the uproar if President Bush had unilaterally launched air attacks against Libya’s Moammar Gadhafi. But since it’s Mr. Obama’s finger on the trigger, Democratic leaders in Congress have kept quiet—demonstrating that their opposition to presidential power during the Bush years was political, not principled.”

While it is uncertain whether or not President Obama is pleased to have Mr. Yoo’s backing, there is little doubt that he has disdain for the views of Dan Simpson, a former career U.S. diplomat. Simpson was the Ambassador to the Central African Republic (1990-92), Special Envoy to Somalia (1995-98), and Deputy Commandant of the United States Army War College (1993-1994). Now an associate editor at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, he characterized Mr. Obama’s war on Libya in the following manner; “We as a people are acting in Libya like some maddened pit bull that just has to attack something. It is shameful.” Simpson went on to say:

“Mr. Obama is moving ahead even though he is in clear violation of the terms of the U.S. War Powers Act. So what is behind his adherence to a policy of pounding Libya? It is oil, to a degree. Even though Libya produces only 2 percent of the world’s oil, the companies that Libya nationalized after Mr. Gadhafi took power in 1969 were owned in part by British and American companies with long memories and a lot of lobbying clout in Washington due to their political contributions to parties and congressmen. France, the United Kingdom and the United States would just love to get their concessions back.”

On March 18, 2011, the day before ordering U.S. military forces to attack Gaddafi’s Libya, President Obama told a select group of 18 U.S. Congress members that the U.S. military action would last for “days not weeks.” Three months later the war grinds on. The president still persists in arguing that there is no need for Congressional approval of his war on Libya; the 90 day limit provided by the War Powers Act that terminates a war not authorized by Congress passed on June 17th; NATO forces are apparently ready to bomb Libya’s ancient Roman ruins, and the so-called “peace movement” seems little more than a relic from the Bush years.

I began writing these words after stumbling upon the aforementioned TIME Magazine photo essay. In truly Orwellian fashion, the essay title had already been changed before I finished this article. No doubt “See Libya’s Roman Ruins Before Nato Bombs Them“, was too honest a proclamation.

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