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.”
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United Nations to approve NATO’s no-fly zone over Libya – and for Obama to win over reluctant American support – was superseded by other goals.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.