U.N. Security Council resolution 1973 defines the mission in Libya as one to “protect civilians.” But at a White House press briefing yesterday with national security advisor Tom Donilon, one questioner (apparently Chip Reid of CBS), got at the tricky question of just what that means:
Q: …[I]s there a difference between a civilian and a rebel?
MR. DONILON: Is there a difference between a civilian and rebel?… [T]he efforts of the United States and coalition partners with respect to protecting civilians is against regime military forces. And that is the absolute crystal-clear instruction from the President to our forces, that there is an effort here to protect civilians. And I don’t — in Benghazi — well, I’ll just say to protect civilians against regime military forces who are attacking them. And that’s the focus of the effort; that’s the direction that the forces have from the Commander-in-Chief.
Q Is there a difference?
MR. DONILON: Is there a difference between a rebel and a — no, a civilian is a civilian.
Q But if a rebel is standing in front of Libyan forces, is he to be protected by –
MR. DONILON: Well, the point, though — I mean, the point is pretty clear, though, is that you have a civilian population under attack by regime forces. And I’ve tried to be very clear about what the instructions are. The coalition partners and others under United Nations Security Council Resolution 1973 are empowered to use all necessary measures to protect civilians from military attack.
Q So if a civilian with an AK-47 is facing off against Qaddafi forces, is he protected under 1973 and coalition forces?
MR. DONILON: Well, but that’s — the focus, the activity of the coalition forces is against the military forces who are attacking civilians. That’s the activity. So that’s the best I can do.
Q So the answer is no, civilians who take up arms against Qaddafi’s forces are not protected under 1973?
MR. DONILON: Not protected? No, I don’t — well, the civilians who are protecting themselves from the Qaddafi regime, is that the –
Q They’re fighting the Qaddafi forces, aren’t they? Are they –
MR. DONILON: Is that the question?
Q — protected by coalition forces in 1973?
Q Doesn’t that mean you’re taking sides on behalf of a military force fighting the Qaddafi regime?
MR. DONILON: We’re taking — this is not unclear either in the resolution, which I’ll reach for here, or in terms of the activities of the coalition forces. The Qaddafi regime was threatening attack and attacking civilians and civilian-populated areas. Those are the two terms in the Security Council resolution. They were under threat of attack, and the goal is to take action to protect civilians and civilian-populated areas from attack by the Qaddafi regime. That’s the –
Q I didn’t understand — civilians — do you recognize the rebels as civilians?
MR. DONILON: They are citizens of Libya, and they are civilians.
Q They are? They are? They are civilians?
MR. DONILON: They’re not military forces under the direction and control of Qaddafi.
Q But they’re military forces –
MR. DONILON: Yes, yes –
Q We keep doing the circle, but let’s –
MR. CARNEY: Chip, let’s give some other people a chance, okay?
Q Okay, fine. But if you can take that question because it hasn’t been answered.
MR. DONILON: You know, Chip, seriously, I’ve been crystal clear on what the mission is of the coalition forces. And that is to protect civilians and civilian areas. You have a circumstance; the circumstance is that you have a city of 700,000 people that are — and other cities in Libya, by the way, that express their view with respect to the Qaddafi regime. And the Qaddafi regime has chosen as a government, as the military force, as the — well, as a government and a military force to undertake attacks of those citizens and those civilian-populated areas. That is exactly what was targeted. And the purpose behind Resolution 1973 was to protect those people.
Now, Benghazi is the center of the opposition in Libya right now. And indeed, as I said earlier, we’ve been in touch with people in Benghazi today and have seen statements come out of Benghazi today about the fact that these actions that we’ve taken have prevented catastrophe there. That’s the purpose of the resolution. These are citizens of Libya who have expressed their view with respect to Qaddafi and his government.
And in response to that, the government — who has control over the violence and force in a country — has chosen with artillery and air assets and other assets including regular military forces to go in and attack those cities and attack those citizens. And the idea of 1973 in part was to protect those citizens and the civilian population areas from that exercise of violence.
Everyone clear on this point now?