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Editorial

The Libya tightrope

A U.N.-authorized no-fly zone could end the strife. But the U.S. must be wary of open-ended commitments.

March 19, 2011

The United Nations resolution authorizing "all necessary measures" to protect civilians in Libya may ultimately avert further slaughter by Moammar Kadafi. If it does, whether through the use of force or as the result of a genuine and durable cease-fire, it will be a remarkable achievement. Even opponents of military action against Libya — this page included — must be impressed by both the humanitarian impulse behind the resolution and the diplomatic skill that made it possible.

It is also highly reassuring that the effort has the imprimatur of the U.N. Security Council and will be multilateral. The no-fly zone — the current centerpiece of the anti-Kadafi strategy — was even endorsed by the Arab League. The United States and its European allies are expected to be joined in maintaining the zone by at least two Arab nations. The resolution, and the action it authorizes, cannot fairly be described as the creature solely of Washington. That is a tribute, in part, to American diplomacy and to President Obama.

What gives us pause about the resolution is the relationship between its humanitarian ends and the political objectives of at least some members of the Security Council. Though the official goal of the resolution is to protect civilians, several countries — including the United States — clearly hope that military force will also lead to Kadafi's downfall. In his remarks Friday, Obama sent a mixed message: He emphasized that Kadafi had lost the legitimacy to lead, but he stopped short of saying that he must go. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton was more forthright, saying that a result of any negotiations would have to be the decision by Kadafi to step down.

But suppose Kadafi doesn't leave? Would the United States be responsible for the fate of Libyans indefinitely? The resolution rules out "a foreign occupation force of any form on any part of Libyan territory," but would the no-fly zone and other measures designed to protect the people continue in perpetuity? And if Kadafi does leave, what responsibility would the U.S. and its allies have for preventing a power vacuum and ensuring a stable future for Libya? After the American experience in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Obama administration needs to be clear about its objectives, realistic about whether they can be attained and wary of open-ended commitments.

That said, the resolution puts Kadafi on notice that his regime brutalizes its people at its own peril. Even if his proclamation of a cease-fire is a fraud, that he made it at all testifies to the seriousness of the message sent by the Security Council.

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