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How Libya's Qaddafi brought humanitarian intervention back in vogue

The notion of humanitarian intervention went dormant after the Iraq war, but has now returned, championed by many of the same countries that were the greatest opponents of invading Baghdad.

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Policymakers feared the "Arab spring" and its homegrown and secular impulses would be crushed in Libya by Mr. Qaddafi's forces bearing down on Benghazi, the unofficial capital of the rebel movement. The invitation of the Arab League for a no-fly zone gave crucial cover for military action, which could have been interpreted in the Arab world as Western imperialism. And the French and British, with relatively sudden and strong support for Libyan rebels, pushed a reluctant President Obama to intervene at the 11th hour.

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That idealism witnessed in recent months in Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, Yemen, Syria, and elsewhere in the Middle East helped foreign-policy idealists triumph over "realists" who resisted the idea of involvement in Libya as possibly entangling the West in another Mideast war.

"The Arab spring was at the core of this," says Charles Kupchan of the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington. "Those people supporting intervention are thinking more broadly than Libya. They are returning to a more idealistic foreign policy after two years of realism."

The European promise to lead on Libya also seemed to help force the American hand. As pressure grew on the United States to take action, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said it wasn't a question of whether the US could enforce a no-fly zone, "The question is whether it's a wise thing to do, and that's the discussion that's going on at a political level."

"The Americans have been saying to Europe all along, 'Where are our partners?' So when the Europeans and the French came to say, 'We want to be your partner,' that shifted things," says Mr. Kupchan.

On March 24, a week after the UN Security Council sanctioned military action in Libya, President Obama said, "It is in America's national interests to participate ... because no one has a bigger stake in making sure that there are basic rules of the road that are observed, that there is some semblance of order and justice, particularly in a volatile region that's going through great changes."

In Europe, too, it was all about the Arab push for democratic reform and an end to autocracy and Qaddafi's effort to snuff it out when the uprisings started in Libya.

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