Time to step up

The death of Moammar Gadhafi is the culmination of the remarkable eight-month revolt against his 42-year rule. But it is also a reminder that a new Libya is taking shape, a process in which the United States and its allies must play a constructive role.

Libyans are exulting in the definitive removal of the preening dictator and congratulating themselves on overthrowing him against what once seemed to be overwhelming odds. Their pride is understandable. Gadhafi wasn't just an eccentric; he waged war on his own people and was a sponsor of terrorism. His overthrow was a blessing for the world as well as for Libya.

Of course, the rebels could not have succeeded without months of relentless NATO airstrikes. Charged by the United Nations with establishing a no-fly zone to protect civilians, NATO countries pounded Gadhafi's forces. In effect if not in name, NATO became the rebels' ally.

This editorial board opposed the no-fly zone out of concern that it would lead to deeper U.S. military involvement in Libya, and because no one seemed able to explain why that country was more appropriate for intervention than many other nations ruled by autocrats. We continue to believe, especially in the aftermath of the troubled interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan, that it is essential for the president to carefully and honestly explain to the American people why and to what end the United States is using military force overseas. But it's impossible to quarrel with the major consequence of the Libyan operation: the end of the Gadhafi regime.

The rebels have a long way to go before they can rest. Among the many challenges now facing Libya's transitional government is to prevent bloodshed between pro- and anti-Gadhafi Libyans, and even among the competing factions that fought to overthrow the strongman. Although the situations aren't identical, the strife in Iraq that followed the downfall of Saddam Hussein is an example of how the overthrow of a dictatorship can unleash latent enmities. If the new Libyan government is unable to quell such violence, outside peacekeepers may prove necessary.

A second and longer-term challenge is to establish a democratic and pluralistic society. On Thursday, President Obama said Libya faced a long and winding road to democracy. The United States and its allies can shorten that road by lending expertise to the designers of a new Libyan democracy. But both sides must be mindful that too close an association with Western powers could compromise a new Libyan government's image of independence. Economic aid poses less of a problem. If the United States, Britain and France share in the victory over Gadhafi, they also share in the responsibility to rebuild Libya.

The U.S. intervention in Libya isn't comparable to the commitments in Iran and Afghanistan. But our involvement there nevertheless created an obligation that survives Moammar Gadhafi.

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