Obama's rationale for Libya war may still stand

A moral imperative to protect civilians led President Obama to seek support for NATO air support of Libyan rebels. In post-Qaddafi Libya, a similar 'responsibility to protect" may be required.

For President Obama, the NATO air war in Libya was driven by a humanitarian impulse: to prevent the slaughter of Libyan civilians. On March 28, in fact, Mr. Obama said the United States would not stand by and allow a massacre that would have “stained the conscience of the world.”

Now the war is ending with Muammar Qaddafi, who ordered attacks on civilians in the city of Benghazi, apparently on the run. Will that same humanitarian rationale now be needed in post-Qaddafi Libya?

The risk of Libya falling into violent chaos or even another dictatorship remains high. But somehow during the five-month civil war, the original reason for the United Nations to approve NATO’s no-fly zone over Libya – and for Obama to win over reluctant American support – was superseded by other goals.

As the fighting went on, it became clear that “regime change” was the only way to fully protect civilians, with NATO jets providing close cover for advancing rebel troops who slowly became better armed and organized. As the rebels took over Tripoli and NATO’s “mission creep” succeeded, Obama endorsed a Bush-like goal of democracy for Libya – which will help the limping Arab Spring.

If the Libyan rebel forces, led by a coalition known at the National Transitional Council, can stay united and enforce order, a liberated Libya may not need foreign boots on the ground. But if the council fails – because of tribal differences or leadership disputes – Obama and the UN have ample precedent to take action.

In the 1990s, President Clinton launched airstrikes twice in the Balkans – in Bosnia and then in Kosovo and Serbia – with NATO troops afterward keeping the peace. The first airstrikes were endorsed by the UN prior to the strikes while the second ones were not.

Since then, the moral imperative for such action has become even more acceptable. In 2005, the UN approved the principle of a “responsibility to protect” civilians from genocide or crimes against humanity – with a presumption that a “responsibility to rebuild” might also be needed to restore a society torn apart by mass killings and to prevent them in the future. The UN has often sent in troops to support nation building after a conflict, or endorsed other nations to do so.

A prime reason for the “responsibility to protect” concept was the international community’s failure to prevent the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. It is based on the idea that sovereignty lies with the people of a country, not the government, thus allowing foreign intervention in case of mass atrocities.

If foreign troops are needed in Libya, the first choice would be those from an Arab or Muslim country. But if sophisticated technology and strict coordination are needed, then European troops might be necessary – rather than American. Just as the US did not take the lead in the airstrikes on Libya, it would be wise to keep Americans out of another Muslim country.

Obama’s moral instincts on Libya were right at the outset, even if they were overtaken by other goals during the conflict. They should be front and center again as Libya enters its postliberation phase.

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