But Western powers must still confront a key strategic question: What is the objective of the airstrikes and the no-fly zone? Is our objective limited to enforcing a no-fly zone to relieve humanitarian suffering? Is it to freeze the situation on the ground? Is it to give support to the rebels so they can remove Qaddafi from power? And, if the latter, what level of military support will the West provide to help the rebels?
UNSCR 1973 calls for protecting the people of Libya, yet is silent about removing Qaddafi. This may have been necessary to secure passage of the resolution – gaining abstentions from Moscow, Beijing, and even Berlin. It may also be helpful to Washington, as it allows the United States to be “for” the resolution, yet vague about the level and duration of any US military engagement.
At present, the Western coalition appears to be hewing closely to this humanitarian goal. Yet such limited action would miss a larger point: If Qaddafi remains in power, he will outlast the will of the international community, reconsolidate his regime, work on the ground to undermine the opposition, and sow the seeds of a new humanitarian crisis yet to come.
That alone would guarantee a continuing disaster for the Libyan people. But the consequences would extend far beyond Libya. Other dictators would absorb the lesson that a tyrant willing to use force against his own population eventually can succeed – even in the face of a UN Resolution and opposition by key Western countries. This would deliver a major blow to those in the Arab world seeking to build a new, more democratic and just future. Moreover, Qaddafi has promised to attack the interests of those states now implementing the UN Resolution – a renewal of Libyan state-sponsored terrorism.