A lot has already been said about the Administration’s decision to intervene in Libya. What sounded like a support operation to enforce a no-fly zone has since revealed itself to be an offensive operation led and conducted almost entirely with U.S. assets and command.

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“Despite the White House attempts to make this look like it’s a huge coalition effort — obviously it required coalition political support — but for now the U.S. military is not only in the lead but conducting almost all military operations, with only minor participation from the French, as you mentioned, even some British fighters over night.

America’s role in the operation is, in short, significant and indispensable. Bruce McQuain noted that the justification for the UN’s — and consequently our — intervention was under the principle of a “responsibility to protect” (R2P) endangered populations from genocide and ethnic cleansing. There are obvious concerns that attach here.

[B]ut you have to ask, what does agreeing with this “principle” mean in the future?

Do we intervene in Sudan or the Congo?  Ivory Coast?  And if not, why not?  None of them, like Libya, put our core national interests at stake.  But all certainly fit the new R2P principle.  How about Bahrain and Yemen?  Nepal?

Whatever the long-term policy implications (assuming, of course, that the Administration would maintain some semblance of consistency,) Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was clear that the U.S. and U.N. were acting to protect Libyan civilians from being wiped out.

“Let me just underscore the key point. This is a broad international effort. The world will not sit idly by while more innocent civilians are killed…. We are standing with the people of Libya, and we will not waver in our efforts to protect them.

The President says that ground troops are off the table. How you effectively protect civilians without ground troops is a gaping open question; on first glance, it’d seem Mr. Obama is trying to split the baby: To feign humanitarian responsibility while limiting our capability to actually protect the helpless.

Whatever Mr. Obama’s political calculus, it’s important to note his Secretary of State’s evolution on the issue of American action in the face of mass killings occurring in our presence. During an interview with the New York Times on March 14, 2007 — almost exactly four years ago — presidential candidate Hillary Clinton was asked whether American troops on the ground should intervene if sectarian fighting in Iraq devolved into outright ethnic cleansing. The short answer: No, they shouldn’t. It was an Iraqi conflict that Iraqis should solve for themselves.

Full NYT-published audio here. Three clips from the interview are below.

In a half-hour interview on Tuesday in her Senate office, Mrs. Clinton said the scaled-down American military force that she would maintain in Iraq after taking office would stay off the streets in Baghdad and would no longer try to protect Iraqis from sectarian violence — even if it descended into ethnic cleansing.

Whatever your feelings about the intervention in Libya, the idea that American troops already on the ground should stand by as helpless innocents are massacred should be anathema to us. Mrs. Clinton’s view was, in fact, directly contradictory to the UN’s “R2P” principle, as articulated in recent days.

It’s fortunate for Libyans that Mrs. Clinton heard the cries of their innocents. Innocent Iraqis would not have been as lucky.

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