The Libya lesson

The international campaign against Libyan leader Moammar Kadafi is on the verge of a historic achievement: The judicious use of force by Western nations has given that nation’s rebellion the opportunity to eliminate a longtime scourge. And yet the experience of Libya, though it ushers out an unstable ruler, offers an uncertain model for U.S. foreign policy.

The use of force to address the internal abominations of other nations raises profoundly difficult questions for American policymakers. Eager not to serve as the world’s police force and yet determined to support democratic values and human rights, the United States often finds itself facing limited, unpalatable options. It may stand aside and allow rulers to abuse their people, or it may intervene, risking American lives and reinforcing the international impression that this nation is entitled to govern others.

In Libya, the Obama administration chose a middle course. The U.S. provided limited air and drone support to rebels who might well have been defeated without it. It declined to act unilaterally but rather played a supporting role in an effort led by European nations that have a greater stake in Libya’s stability. And though there were signs of mission creep, of deepening embroilment in Libya’s civil war, the U.S. largely resisted those temptations. Not one American soldier set foot in Libya.

Success should not breed complacency, however. What caused Kadafi to lose control of the country was less the pressure of outsiders than the fundamental weakness of his hollow regime. It would be foolish to assume that other governments, even in the region, are as susceptible to challenge. In Syria, for instance, the government of Bashar Assad retains, at least for the moment, the support of a formidable army and continues to pummel its people into submission; the death toll there is thought to exceed 2,200. Last week, the Obama administration, in conjunction with U.S. allies, called for Assad to step down and imposed sanctions on Syrian oil and American investment in Syria. Those were wise and measured steps, calibrated to the specifics of that situation.


Some will see in the crumbling of Kadafi’s regime a template for action in Syria. That’s the wrong lesson. Instead, the apparent success of the Libyan rebels is a reminder that every crisis is unique, and that each calls for the nuanced application of leverage in defense of American values and interests. Force is sometimes justified, but it should only be deployed when other methods have failed, when it can serve a vital end and when it can be effective in securing that result.