French and UN forces in Ivory Coast have discovered that a mandate to protect civilians can quickly lead to the need to forcefully oust the reviled leader, Laurent Gbagbo. Might Obama and NATO put boots on the ground in Libya to oust Qaddafi, if civilian killings don't end?
A moral impulse to help save someone doesn’t always go as planned – which is just the type of plot twist that makes fiction writers wealthy. The protagonist often ends up on shaky moral ground.
In Libya, the reality of war may be heading for such a plot-twisting moment.
President Obama justifies the US military role there as necessary to avoid “a massacre that would have reverberated across the region and stained the conscience of the world.” And, he says, only air power is needed to save civilians – with no military boots on the ground. The goals and means are limited.
But as the conflict drags on, and the forces of Muammar Qaddafi infiltrate various cities to kill more civilian opponents, the lines of fighting are becoming blurred.
And so, too, is the morality of the foreign intervention. A “responsibility to protect” could easily become a necessity for military victory.
The US and other members of the UN-backed coalition may face a moral dilemma soon: Will foreign forces ultimately need to use ground forces to capture or kill Qaddafi – an act that Obama and others now find repugnant – in order to achieve the goal of protecting civilians?
That type of question is already being addressed in another conflict on the African continent, one that is fast nearing its own dramatic denouement. It may serve as a lesson in Libya.