Somebody (perhaps a Jesuit) once said: “Force is an instrument of love in a world of complexity and chance.”

I’d be grateful if someone could tell me where that comes from. It has stayed with me for a long time because it embodies a kind of truth: Sometimes you have to use force to protect innocent people from harm. Which brings us to Libya.

The war there is effectively over, and the Good Guys won. The dictator’s delusional son, Saif al-Islam, still promises that “victory is near,” but he will soon be dead, in prison, or (if he is lucky) in exile.

The only problem is that the Good Guys who mattered most were actually foreigners.

The National Transitional Council, the shambolic proto-government that claims to run the rebel-held areas (now more than 90 percent of the country) is well aware of the problem. When the United Nations began talking about sending peacekeeping troops to Libya to help stabilize the country, their reply was a resounding “no.”

That’s understandable. The NTC has enough difficulty getting other Arabs and Africans to accept that their revolution is a legitimate, homegrown affair without having armed foreigners traipsing around the country. It’s painful even to admit that NATO functioned as the rebels’ air force, and that they could not have won without it. But it’s true.

It was the decision by France and Britain to commit their air forces to the defense of the rebels in eastern Libya that saved them from being overrun by Moammar Gadhafi’s forces in the early days of the revolt. Other Western countries sent combat aircraft to join them (although the United States drew back after the first few days), and Gadhafi’s army was stopped just short of Benghazi.

Equally important was U.N. resolution 1973 in March, which authorizes willing U.N. member countries to use “all necessary means” (i.e. force) to protect the Libyan population from its own government. It specifically mentioned Benghazi, the capital of the rebel-held territory, as an area to be protected. And even Russia and China did not veto the resolution, although they had deep misgivings about where it might lead.

They were right. It led to a NATO-led aerial campaign (supported by a few planes from a couple of small Arab countries) that went far beyond protecting the Libyan population from attacks by Gadhafi’s forces.

His troops were struck from the air wherever they were, on the flimsy argument that they might be planning to attack civilians one of these days.

Similarly, any building with pro-Gadhafi Libyan troops in or around it was designated a “command and control center,” and therefore a legitimate target. The targeting was precise, hurting few civilians, but the bombing was intense. Exact numbers are hard to come by, but the Royal Canadian Air Force, with only six F-18s involved, dropped 240 bombs on Libya in the first two months of the operation, all of them 227-kilogram laser-guided weapons.

It was these relentless air attacks that eroded Gadhafi’s forces so much that the rebel fighters in the west were finally able to seize Tripoli. The rebels could not have won without NATO.

So were NATO’s actions legitimate, especially since they stretched the U.N. resolution’s terms almost to the breaking point? Even more importantly, were they morally correct?

Let’s leave the legality to the lawyers, who will gladly argue either side of that question for a fee. The real question is moral. Was NATO an instrument of love in this instance? Were its bombs?

Cheap cynicism says no, of course. It was “all about oil,” or the West seeking military bases in Libya, or French President Nicolas Sarkozy looking for a cheap foreign policy success before next year’s election. But cheap cynicism is sometimes wrong.

You don’t get oil more cheaply by invading a country: look at Iraq, which has sold all its oil at the world market price for the past eight years despite U.S. military occupation.

Why on Earth would the West want military bases in Libya? It already has them nearby, in Italy. And Sarkozy took a very big risk in sending French planes to back the rebels, although he must have known that any political boost he got would be over by next year.

If the foreigners’ motives really were humanitarian — they wanted to stop Gadhafi’s atrocious regime from killing his own subjects, and thought that Libyans would be better off without him — then they actually were using force as an instrument of love. Not “love” as in the love songs, but love meaning a genuine concern for the welfare of others.

Most resorts to force do not meet this criterion (although those using the force generally claim that they do). The United States did not invade Iraq out of concern for the welfare of Iraqis, for example. But once in a while there is a shining exception, and this is one of those times.

The British, French, Canadians, Swedes, Qataris and so on would not have done it if it involved large casualties in their own forces. (In fact, they had no casualties.)

Most Western soldiers didn’t think the operation would succeed in removing Gadhafi, and the outcome has been greeted with surprise and relief in most of the capitals that sent aircraft. But they did it, and that counts for a lot.

Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.

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