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.