Muammar Qaddafi’s rule, which began nearly 42 years ago, appears to be in its death throes. Rebels have entered Tripoli, and if news accounts are to be believed, the regime’s defenders are collapsing faster than anyone expected. The “ring of steel” Qaddafi had supposedly erected around his capital proved as formidable as all the defenses Saddam Hussein had boasted would keep Baghdad safe from an American-led invasion in 2003. This is hardly surprising: Regimes like Qaddafi’s or Saddam’s depend on fear to survive. They have little love or loyalty to call upon. Once the veil of fear protecting the regime is pierced–once it appears its enemies are ascendant–dictators like Qaddafi and Saddam discover how few real friends they actually have.

But while the end of Qaddafi’s rule–if that is in fact what we are seeing here, and we should always keep in mind initial reports are fragmentary and often wrong–is to be welcomed with open arms, a couple of caveats should be kept in mind.

In the first place, Qaddafi might have fallen months sooner if President Obama had acted sooner and devoted more resources to the NATO  campaign. The fact the fighting has stretched on for more than six months has raised the cost of reconstruction and deepened already existing fissures in Libyan society. That raises the danger it will be hard to stabilize post-Qaddafi Libya.

This brings us to our second caveat: that, while Qaddafi’s fall is a big step forward, it is not the end of the journey. If Libya is to arrive at the destination we would all like to see–if it is to emerge as a liberal, Western-style democracy–much hard work lies ahead. As I have been arguing for awhile, it is vitally important NATO be ready to help stabilize the situation, to prevent Qaddafi’s supporters from mounting an insurgency, to keep potent weapons from slipping out of governmental control–in short to ensure Libya does not suffer the fate of Iraq or Afghanistan, which descended into chaos after the collapse of their regimes. That will probably require the deployment of a stabilization force to work with the Transitional National Council and buttress its shaky authority.

With those caveats in mind, I think it is nevertheless fitting to extend tentative congratulations to the people of Libya–and to their defenders in the West. In particular to Prime Minister David Cameron, President Nicolas Sarkozy and President Obama: the three driving forces behind the NATO effort to prevent Qaddafi from preserving his regime by slaughtering his own people. As noted before, I wish they had done more, faster, but the fact they acted at all–in the face of considerable criticism–is to their credit, and to the credit of the countries they lead.

In Libya, at least, the international community made clear it will take forceful action when the basic norms of civilization are traduced. Thus, Libya joins other cases–from Bosnia and Kosovo to Iraq–which show international law does occasionally mean something, that sometimes there is a price to be paid for the most inhumane conduct.

Let us hope that is a message Bashar al-Assad, among others, receives–and that he will be next in the ever-growing queue of deposed dictators in the Middle East.

 

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