The United States and its coalition partners’ decision to launch Operation Odyssey Dawn to enforce a no-fly zone in Libya on March 19 was a vindication of the fragile “responsibility to protect” (RtoP) norm. The diplomatic process to build a consensus about intervention was messy, involving protracted negotiations among multiple parties, and the military outcome in Libya remains uncertain. Still, the Obama administration was correct to champion RtoP’s basic principle: state sovereignty is not a license for a dictator to murder his citizens.

When it was endorsed unanimously by heads of state at the 2005 World Summit, RtoP was the biggest challenge to state sovereignty in three and a half centuries. It makes a state’s presumed right of nonintervention contingent on its ability and willingness to protect its citizens and threatens “collective, timely, and decisive action” if it does not. Until recently, however, putting this norm into practice proved tougher than enunciating it. UN member states repeatedly failed to intervene in even the most egregious situations -- such as in Darfur, Sri Lanka, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo -- and left hundreds of thousands of civilians at the mercy of genocidal leaders and armed militias. Given its seeming unenforceability, RtoP risked becoming a twenty-first century version of the 1928 Kellogg-Briand Pact, which “outlawed war” as an instrument of national policy.

In invoking “the Libyan authorities’ responsibility to protect its population” in UN Security Council Resolution 1973, which prompted Operation Odyssey Dawn, the Security Council has seemingly given RtoP a new lease on life. How strengthened RtoP will be depends both on how well the Libya case fits its mandate and how well the intervention turns out.

RtoP was never intended as a license to go after every misbehaving regime. It applies only to those committing mass atrocities -- genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity, and ethnic cleansing. Although there is no consensus on the body count needed to trigger RtoP, the actions and intentions of Libya’s leader Colonel Muammar al-Qaddafi have provided ample justification. Qaddafi’s own security forces and the mercenaries he imported from Mali, Niger, Chad, and other sub-Saharan African countries have used indiscriminate force against civilians, massacring hundreds, perhaps more than a thousand, Libyans. They have also committed gross violations of human rights, the laws of war, and humanitarian law, such as using live ammunition against peaceful protesters, employing civilians as human shields, and denying relief to affected populations. On February 22, Qaddafi even pledged to “cleanse Libya house by house” of antigovernment protesters. Resolution 1973 noted that these “systematic attacks against the civilian population may amount to crimes against humanity,” and, pursuant to a Security Council request, Luis Moreno-Ocampo, chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC), has already opened an investigation into Qaddafi’s actions.

Even in the face of atrocities, RtoP envisions military action as a last resort after diplomatic efforts and sanctions have failed. In this, too, Operation Odyssey Dawn meets RtoP’s standards. Before authorizing military intervention, the international community took numerous other steps to dissuade Qaddafi from committing further atrocities, including imposing an arms embargo, a travel ban, and an asset freeze; condemning Libya within (and ejecting it from) the UN Human Rights Council; and referring the Libyan case to the ICC. Qaddafi’s continued defiance left the Security Council with the choice between escalating military intervention and tolerating, in the words of Resolution 1973, additional “gross and systematic violations of human rights, including arbitrary detentions, enforced disappearances, torture and summary executions.”

Of course, Qaddafi did himself no favors by promising to “have no mercy and no pity” in Benghazi, the opposition movement’s stronghold. As U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton correctly observed from Paris on March 19, “We have every reason to fear that, left unchecked, Qadaffi will commit unspeakable atrocities.” The dictator’s large stockpile of chemical weapons raised the stakes even further.

For an RtoP intervention to be legitimate, it has to have international support, which the United States was prudent to secure before launching military operations. Critics, such as former UN ambassador John Bolton and Kori Schake, a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, have bemoaned the administration’s willingness to allow other countries, particularly France, to spearhead the intervention as a retreat from leadership. They decry its insistence on seeking a UN imprimatur and warn of the dangers of war by NATO committee. But a U.S.-led intervention in Libya without Security Council authorization would have been disastrous, fanning the flames of anti-Americanism in the region, upending the narrative of this year’s protests as an indigenous “Arab awakening,” and saddling the United States with exclusive responsibility for yet another Muslim-majority country.

Attacking Libya without international backing, moreover, would also have done grievous damage to the RtoP norm, allowing critics to frame it as window-dressing for Western interventionism. Security Council authorization provided critical legitimacy for the United States and its allies to combat Qaddafi’s atrocities. The endorsement of the no-fly zone by the Arab League, Organization of the Islamic Conference, and Gulf Cooperation Council was also crucial. None of these bodies has ever lifted a finger against regional tyrants, but this time their members made a different calculation, presumably reflecting a collective distaste for Qaddafi and their vulnerability to democratic aspirations sweeping the region.

One key aspect of successful intervention is clarity of political goals. In this respect, the United States and its partners’ dithering over Operation Odyssey Dawn’s aims is disturbing. In early March, the Obama administration signaled multiple times that it wanted full regime change in Libya. U.S. President Barack Obama has since vacillated, insisting in a March 19 address that the United States would not use force “beyond a well-defined goal -- specifically, the protection of civilians in Libya.”

Unfortunately, the notion that any country could impartially intervene on behalf of civilians is a delusion. Using military force to protect beleaguered civilian populations invariably means taking sides -- a lesson it took years for the West to learn in Bosnia. And war involves other uncertainties: coalition aerial attacks could cause civilian casualties, and Arab League support could evaporate. If Qaddafi’s forces dig in and hold their forward positions, they could still exact revenge against rebels in areas left under their control. The conflict could settle into a bloody, inconclusive stalemate, or alternatively, Qaddafi could abruptly fall from power and victorious rebel forces could launch their own round of score-settling. Given the likely possibility that at least one of these things will happen, the Obama administration is kidding itself if it believes that it can hand Libya over to coalition allies or victorious protesters after a few days, without any involvement in the endgame. As the only power with the strength to respond to these various contingencies, the United States will need to see this through to the end.

The “responsibility to protect” implies a responsibility to rebuild once the shooting stops. Although Resolution 1973 explicitly rejects foreign occupation of any part of Libyan territory, stabilizing the country for the long term will likely require a multinational peacekeeping force. Ideally it would be authorized by the United Nations and include significant contingents from the Arab world. Such long-term tasks as reconstructing Libya’s economy and political institutions would only be possible with major commitments of financial resources from the European Union, the World Bank, the African Development Bank, wealthy Gulf sheikhdoms, and the United States.

In a seminal Foreign Affairs article in 2002, Gareth Evans, then president and CEO of the International Crisis Group, and Mohamed Sahnoun, who was special adviser on Africa to the UN secretary-general, argued that any military intervention to support RtoP must satisfy six principles: the cause must be just, the intentions of the interveners must be pure, the use of force should be a last resort, it should be sanctioned by the Security Council, it must be undertaken with proportional means, and it should have reasonable prospects of success. The imposition of the no-fly zone in Libya has met the first five of these criteria. But its ultimate success will depend on meeting the sixth. To do that, the United States and its allies must show more willingness to remove the Qaddafi regime and then rebuild a war-torn Libya.

For further expert analysis of the uprisings across the Arab world, please check out Foreign Affairs/CFR new ebook, The New Arab Revolt: What Happened, What It Means, and What Comes Next.

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  • STEWART PATRICK is a Senior Fellow and the Director of the Program on International Institutions and Global Governance at the Council on Foreign Relations. He is the author of the forthcoming Weak Links: Fragile States, Global Threats, and International Security.
  • More By Stewart Patrick