Score One for NATO

Libyan rebels -- the "rats" as Muammar Gaddafi calls them -- are closing in on the eccentric dictator. Although a hundred things could go wrong in post-Gaddafi Libya, Americans should always welcome a tyrant's fall.

Rather than ponder what comes next, the ever-parochial U.S. media is fixated on whether Gaddafi's ouster will boost President Obama's sagging poll ratings. Thus do all those ordinary Libyans who gave and risked their lives to liberate themselves get reduced to bit players in Washington's never ending political melodrama.

Obama deserves some credit for lending a hand, but he wasn't the instigator of the Libyan intervention. That honor goes to France and Britain, who were most determined to prevent Gaddafi from carrying out threats to obliterate regime opponents. Already mired in two wars, the United States was happy to fall in behind its allies, and after some opening salvos, content itself with mainly providing logistical support.

So credit NATO as well as the rebels if Gaddafi is toppled or flees. Assuming Libya does not dissolve into Iraq-style chaos, either outcome would be a big morale boost to an alliance that hasn't gotten much respect lately. NATO's decision to enforce a "no fly, no drive" zone in Libya was widely panned as ineffectual, a half measure that would make Europeans feel good but only prolong the violence and end at best in stalemate. On the other side, non-interventionists of the left and right complained that NATO has used its U.N. mandate to protect civilians as cover for waging an offensive war on the regime.

Well, that's true -- NATO's real, if undeclared, goal has been regime change. Airstrikes on regime ground forces first stopped Gaddafi's drive on the rebel stronghold of Benghazi, and have played a critical role in the rebels' counterattack since then. A heavy NATO bombardment paved the way for their dramatic entry into Tripoli over the weekend. Maybe the Chinese or Russians are scandalized by NATO's loose construction of the U.N. resolution, but strictly playing defense would undoubtedly have led to more bloodshed.

NATO's success may or may not breathe new life into the creaky old alliance, which suffers from a cloudy rationale and steep cuts in European defense spending. It would, however, challenge assumptions about the supposed folly of using limited force in situations where the strategic stakes don't justify "all-in" intervention. Foreign policy realists recoil at the idea of limited war -- recall the Powell Doctrine, which says go in big or don't go in at all -- but in fact such interventions have become the norm since the end of World War II. None of the NATO allies has a compelling strategic interest in what happens in Libya, but there as elsewhere a strong humanitarian case for intervention could be made.

If Libya turns out well, it will be another step toward entrenching the "responsibility to protect" as a new global norm. But isn't this a slippery slope? If limited war worked to prevent massacres in Libya, don't we have a moral obligation to intervene next in Syria, whose thuggish dictator has killed close to 2,000 civilians over the last five months?

Well, no. International politics, like domestic politics, is the art of the possible. Each case is unique and requires its own careful balancing of prudential and moral considerations. Given Libya's relative backwardness and Gaddafi's political isolation, the risks of Western military intervention there are less than in Syria. Call it opportunism if you like, but it beats the perverse logic of denying anyone help because we can't help everyone.

The most persuasive objections to the Libyan intervention have always turned on the question of what comes after Gaddafi. Have we opened the door to radical Islamists, as many U.S. conservatives fear? Can the National Transitional Council (NTC) established by the rebels last February, and united mostly by hatred of Gaddafi, sustain the support of a fragmented, tribal society? Will a rural country without a large, educated middle class be able to establish a stable, representative and effective government?

We'll see. But having abetted the NTC's victory, the NATO allies should have considerable leverage over the course of events there, especially if they are willing to follow military with economic and political support. In any event, Gaddafi's imminent fall will likely invigorate the Arab spring and encourage a tougher regional and international response to Syrian dictator Basher al Asad's depredations in Syria.

That alone would be a solid return on NATO's modest investment in helping Libyans free themselves from a mad tyrant.

This item is cross-posted at the Progressive Policy Institute.