Could they have done more to contain possible blowback? Tom Malinowski of Human Rights Watch says that his organization repeatedly urged NATO to take measures to prevent the outflow of weapons from Qaddafi's arsenals: "Our view is that more could have been done as government territory fell to rebel forces in Libya to secure supplies of arms." But he is quick to acknowledge that this was no easy task.
Don't get me wrong: I'm not trying to argue here that we should have left the Libyan dictator in place. As Malinowski points out, it would be a mistake to portray Qaddafi as a source of regional stability, given his obsessive meddling in the affairs of his neighbors. "In the long run it was in nobody's interest to have a brutal dictator in Tripoli who used rebel groups around the region to serve his purposes and whenever it suited his whims," he says. "But in the short run, the collapse of his regime may have contributed to what we're seeing now in Mali."
To be sure, we shouldn't oversimplify the case. Mali's leaders certainly bear considerable responsibility for the predicament in which the country now finds itself. For all its achievements, Malian democracy has been undermined for years by corruption, poverty, and complacency.
Nonetheless, recent events in this part of the world offer an important cautionary tale. The lesson: Even in situations where there is ample justification for using force against dictators or war criminals, policymakers would be well-advised to take a good look at the possible negative side effects of their actions. Perhaps it's time for humanitarian interventionists to come up with their own version of the Hippocratic Oath?