U.S.-backed measures may boost Libyan opposition

Friday, March 18, 2011; 9:12 PM

IF MOAMMAR GADDAFI falls from his dictator's perch in Libya, as he richly deserves to do, history may cast him in the role of his own worst enemy.

Emboldened by U.S. hesitation to take military action against him, the Libyan dictator launched a lightning counteroffensive against his rebellious people until, approaching the opposition stronghold of Benghazi, he proclaimed "no mercy and no pity" for the resistance. Mr. Gaddafi's brazen threat, and the prospect that he would fulfill it by spilling a sea of his people's blood, helped galvanize President Obama and other world leaders. Mr. Obama on Thursday threw his support behind a U.N. Security Council resolution authorizing "all necessary measures" to stop Mr. Gaddafi. On Friday Mr. Obama announced that the U.S. military stands ready to help France, Britain and other nations enforce a no-fly zone and other measures, short of employing ground troops, to protect civilians. This improves the prospects for Libya's opposition.

It does not guarantee their victory, however, and it is not yet clear what role the United States will play. Mr. Obama confronted Mr. Gaddafi with non-negotiable conditions, derived from the U.N. resolution, which included a cease-fire, an end to the siege of various Libyan towns and free passage for humanitarian supplies. Notably, the list did not repeat the assertion, which Mr. Obama issued more than two weeks ago, that "it's time for Gaddafi to go." Instead, Mr. Obama framed this as a "choice" for the dictator.

What if Mr. Gaddafi chooses to meet U.N. terms and then attempts to keep power indefinitely over the sections of Libya his forces control? Mr. Gaddafi's announcement of a cease-fire Friday, swiftly brushed off by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, suggests that he is already probing the limits of U.S. and allied resolve. Might he end up with control over the capital of Tripoli while eastern Libya becomes a de facto opposition state, protected by Western air power, as Iraqi Kurdistan was for many years during Saddam Hussein's era?

Mr. Obama's eloquent words Friday make clear why this cannot be acceptable. "Left unchecked, we have every reason to believe that Gaddafi would commit atrocities against his people," the president said. "Many thousands could die. A humanitarian crisis would ensue. The entire region could be destabilized, endangering many of our allies and partners. The calls of the Libyan people for help would go unanswered. The democratic values that we stand for would be overrun. Moreover, the words of the international community would be rendered hollow."

The president has been right to weigh U.S. options carefully and to work diligently to assemble a coalition. The United States cannot fight a war on behalf of Libyan rebels. But there can be no satisfactory outcome for Libya that includes a part for Mr. Gaddafi and his inner circle. As Mr. Obama said Friday, "Moammar Gaddafi clearly lost the confidence of his own people and the legitimacy to lead."

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