The defeat of Muammar al-Qaddafi's regime has produced a vigorous debate about the lessons of the intervention. Plenty of the commentary has focused on what the rebel victory means for U.S. President Barack Obama's political future and his foreign-policy doctrine of "leading from behind," as well as the NATO alliance. But beyond the Beltway, in capitals all over the globe, the Libya experience is also an important test for the doctrine of humanitarian intervention, which has moved in and out of fashion during the past two decades. For those think that the international community should stop the depredations of violent regimes -- by force if necessary -- Libya is a milestone. But the intervention also poses some difficult questions.
1. Is a slow victory better than a quick defeat?
Western-led intervention in Libya was designed to avert the defeat and feared massacre of regime opponents in the rebel capital of Benghazi. The massacre didn't happen. (Whether it ever would have is a matter of significant debate, though revelations of massacres by government forces in Tripoli bolster the case.) Instead, intervention produced a grinding six-month conflict that still hasn't fully ended. By most accounts, the conflict has taken at least 20,000 lives. At least one National Transitional Committee (NTC) commander estimates that 50,000 Libyans have died. If the sole criterion is whether lives were saved, the operation may have failed. It's at least possible that a quick victory by Qaddafi -- which appeared likely in February -- would have resulted in fewer deaths than the prolonged conflict.
The notion of acquiescing to a brutal crackdown on humanitarian grounds may seem perverse. But humanitarians make that kind of calculation all the time, though not always explicitly. The scale of human suffering in North Korea, for instance, dwarfs that in Libya. Yet no serious observer calls for intervention there, because of the expected cost. In Libya, Western policymakers argued that the balance tilted in favor of action. But particularly if a humanitarian intervention will be limited to air support for local resistance, the expected toll of prolonged fighting must be factored into the calculus.
Unless, that is, the humanitarian calculus is not the most important one. Intervention can support all sorts of other values and goals, including self-determination and self-government. Supporting a rebel group with a just cause might be the right choice even if doing so produces a prolonged and bloody conflict. Taking those other objectives into account, however, requires a debate that goes well beyond a simple humanitarian calculus.