How Gadhafi's fall vindicated Obama and RtoP
National Security Council Senior Director Samantha Power led the drafting of PSD-10, the Presidential Study Directive on Mass Atrocities. (Getty Images)
August 29th, 2011
04:00 AM ET

How Gadhafi's fall vindicated Obama and RtoP

Editor's Note: Stewart Patrick is a Senior Fellow and the Director of the Program on International Institutions and Global Governance at the Council on Foreign Relations. He is the author of Weak Links: Fragile States, Global Threats, and International Security.

By Stewart Patrick, Foreign Affairs

The fall of Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi is a significant foreign policy triumph for U.S. President Barack Obama. By setting overall strategy while allowing others to shoulder the burden of implementing it, the Obama administration achieved its short-term objective of stopping Gadhafi's atrocities and its long-term one of removing him from power. This was all done at a modest financial cost, with no U.S. troops on the ground, and zero U.S. casualties. Meanwhile, as the first unambiguous military enforcement of the Responsibility to Protect norm, Gadhafi's utter defeat seemingly put new wind in the sails of humanitarian intervention.

One must be careful, however, not to overdraw lessons from the Libyan experience. It was a unique case and is unlikely to be repeated.

For one, Libya had Gadhafi, a villain straight from central casting, who had managed to alienate nearly all UN member states, including his erstwhile Arab and African allies.

The timing was also perfect. As the UN, NATO, and United States debated intervention, leaders in the Middle East were still reeling from the Arab Spring. Acutely aware of the vulnerability of their own regimes, the members of the Arab League, Organization of the Islamic Conference, and Gulf Cooperation Council all endorsed the UN's declaration of a no-fly zone over Libya, including the use of "all necessary means" to prevent mass atrocities.

In addition, China and Russia, the two permanent members of the Security Council (UNSC) most averse to authorizing military intervention under Chapter VII of the UN Charter, had no special relationship with, or interests in, Libya. So, they had no reason to veto a collective action. Moreover, Libya is a small country, with a population of only 6.4 million, which is concentrated along a fairly narrow strip of land by the Mediterranean. Thus, the logistics of military intervention promised to be less daunting there than it would have in Sudan, for example, which is fifty percent larger, almost seven times as populous, and has hundreds of thousands soldiers under arms. And since Libya is situated on Europe's doorstep, NATO and the EU were more motivated to provide aerial power and political support for the mission, since regional instability and a wave of refugees would effect them. The country also possessed a credible, fairly cohesive, and increasingly capable opposition movement, which provided the ground force that casualty-averse Western governments would not. These rebels ultimately proved able to defeat Gadhafi's military machine.

Finally, Libya was an unambiguous case for applying the RtoP doctrine. To be sure, the atrocities Gadhafi orchestrated in Libya prior to the intervention pale in comparison to those committed during the course of other recent violent conflicts. In Sri Lanka, for example, the government killed thousands of civilians while finishing off the rebel Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam in 2009. And forces in the Democratic Republic of the Congo have raped tens - or perhaps hundreds - of thousands of women over the past decade to sow terror. Gadhafi's violent crackdown on this spring's protests and his explicit promise to "have no mercy and pity" on residents of Benghazi, the opposition stronghold, also left little ambiguity. As Secretary of State Hillary Clinton noted in March, "left unchecked, Gadhafi will commit unspeakable atrocities."

Read: Obama's Options in Damascus

Gadhafi's ouster may vindicate the RtoP idea, but the application of the norm will inevitably remain selective and highly contingent on the political context. The humanitarian imperative is a strong and growing global impulse, but statecraft is still subject to constraints of geopolitics, resources and political will.

What has been most striking in the Libyan case is the Obama administration's vocal leadership in seeking to consolidate RtoP as a vital global norm - a stark contrast to the lukewarm attitude of the Bush administration. Washington's embrace of RtoP is critical, because the United States is the only country with the power and the credibility to actually enforce it.

Lest one imagine that the Libyan case is a one-off, on August 4 the Obama administration released the Presidential Study Directive on Mass Atrocities (PSD-10). The directive defines the prevention of mass atrocities as both "a core national security interest and a core moral responsibility of the United States." PSD-10 is a groundbreaking document and represents a huge victory for National Security Council Senior Director Samantha Power, a leading administration hawk on Libya.

The PSD-10 recognizes a simple truth: The United States will inevitably confront atrocities that cannot be ignored. The directive expands the menu of policy options available in such cases, which should range from complete inaction to sending in the marines. This escalatory ladder is meant to encompass preventive diplomacy, economic and financial sanctions, arms embargoes, and ultimately coercive action.

Realist critics have bemoaned it as a blueprint for interventionism run amok, anticipating meddling in foreign conflicts on a grand Wilsonian scale. But an honest evaluation of the directive should be informed by the United States' previous experience with RtoP; given the country's sorry record in actually confronting mass atrocities - in the killing fields of Cambodia and the bloody hills of Rwanda, to name just two - the realist critique seems off base. Indeed, the far greater risk is that the directive will gather dust on a shelf, while the United States and the international community ignore the victims of atrocities.

Read: Libyan Nation Building After Gadhafi.

Ultimately, the fate of the PSD-10, and perhaps of the RtoP norm itself, will depend on the attitudes of future U.S. presidents and the American people. Will they be willing to devote resources, and potentially lives, to address the suffering of strangers? The question is, in part, a moral one: What obligations does the United States have to those living beyond its borders? It is also a strategic one: How does a policymaker weigh the potential benefits of an intervention (in terms of lives saved) against the costs to the United States (including in the lives of its own soldiers).

There is no easy answer to this question. In the late nineteenth century, Bismarck famously remarked that the entirety of the Balkans was not worth the bones of a single "Pomeranian grenadier." A century later, NATO dithered before summoning the will to intervene in Bosnia and Kosovo, and the United States pulled out of Somalia after the deaths of eighteen U.S. Army Rangers.

Now, two decades later, no senior official in the Obama administration nor member of Congress has issued a call for intervention in Somalia to assist the delivery of emergency food aid, as that country faces its worst famine in decades. Al Shabaab, a U.S. designated terrorist organization, controls the vast majority of drought-affected areas and is obstructing the delivery of foreign aid. Without assistance, 3.2 million Somalis will likely die. The United States' silence on Somalia contrasts starkly with its policy on Libya.

The United States will remain selective about humanitarian intervention, because it must balance the goal of preventing suffering with other interests and commitments, and because some conflicts, such as anarchic Somalia, are dauntingly complex and would impose unacceptable burdens on well-meaning intervenors.

As Obama has noted, however, that is no excuse for inaction everywhere. Although rigid criteria for involvement are unrealistic, the U.S policy on armed humanitarian intervention should be guided by several principles, which I first outlined in 2004 when I was on the State Department policy planning staff.

First, the United States should set the bar for intervention high. It should be limited to stopping or preventing egregious atrocities –situations in which governments or insurgents are targeting large numbers of civilians with genocide, systematic rape, mass murder, expulsion or other crimes against humanity. There are prudent reasons for this limitation. Sovereignty remains the stabilizing force of the world order - a barrier to global anarchy. In addition, U.S. capacities are finite. Without discipline, its resources could be quickly exhausted.

Second, armed intervention should be an option of last resort. Given the costs, risks, and the unpredictable consequences, it should be employed only when other measures fail or when the speed and scale of atrocities outpaces slower instruments. And then, the mission should be undertaken using means proportional to the conflict, and should be coupled with a realistic long-term political strategy to address the violence's root cause.

Third, multilateral interventions are vastly preferable to unilateral ones. They offer both increased legitimacy and the promise that others will share the load.

Finally, the United States should undertake armed humanitarian intervention only if its leaders are committed to marshaling and sustaining the domestic support required to stay the course even if the going gets rough. Absent enthusiastic public or congressional sentiment in favor of intervention, the president must be ready to lead on his own.

Read: How Iran Keeps Assad in Power in Syria.

When it came to authorizing and conducting the Libya intervention, the Obama administration checked all these boxes. It set the bar high; moved to military force after other expedients had failed; designed a military strategy with good prospects of success, using proportional means; and it forged a broad coalition, legitimated by the UN Security Council. Finally, Obama displayed the political courage to do what was right, sticking with the campaign even as U.S. public support flagged from lukewarm 43 percent in late March to a dangerously low 24 percent by July.

Libya has demonstrated the viability of a well-implemented RtoP intervention. Yet just because the doctrine has survived a significant test, one should not assume that the United States and its allies will apply it universally. As atrocities emerge in other contexts, the international community will need to cultivate and weigh other policy options against armed intervention, so it is not faced with stark choice of military action or inaction. The Obama administration's PSD-10 is a step in that direction.

The views expressed in this article are solely those of Stewart Patrick.

soundoff (417 Responses)
  1. Anthony in Maryland

    Obama will get no credit! Republicans will say that George Bush and Dick Cheney were in Libya fighting with the rebels to ensure that he would not be in power any longer. Hell, they would say Dick Cheney drove drove him to Algeria just to have to give Obama any sort of accolades.

    August 29, 2011 at 3:45 pm | Reply
  2. Beverly NC

    Most of the comments here are ridiculous and inaccurate and from Republicans who never bother with facts.

    Republicans wanted another full-blown ground war both in Egypt and Libya and even in Syria. President Obama was not going to engage the U.S. in any more Bush-type wars where we go in uninvited, murder our soldiers for the Bush lie, and stay for a decade and add trillions to our debt and accomplish NOTHING.

    President Obama handled Egypt, Libya and now Syria in a very intelligent and well-thought-out manner. He did not commit the U.S. to more endless war. He gathered support from our Allies, from the UN, and even from the Arab League. We went in first for humanitarian reasons to stop genocide. We then, at the request of the PEOPLE, formed a NATO coalition to help the rebels gain freedom from these Arab dictators. Mubarak and Ghadafi are now both GONE – not one U.S. soldier was killed or in harm's way; it was all done in 6 months time; the cost was minimal and shared among many nations; and these Arab nations are grateful to the U.S. – even flying banners saying "Thank you Obama".

    President Obama is an outstanding leader and has accomplished many great things in his first term. Republicans are so desperate and petty they refuse to give President Obama credit for ANYTHING. He could cure cancer and Republicans would find fault with it. Republicans are ridiculous and their constant slander and unending criticism of President Obama is old, tiresome and shows a total lack of character, maturity or leadership.

    Thank you President Obama. There are real Americans who appreciate your hard work for ALL Americans and for the betterment of foreign relations and intelligent actions we have not seen by a President in a long time. You will be re-elected and we will get rid of all Republicans so we can stop playing their absurd obstruction extremist games and actually do real work in creating jobs and restoring our economy. Republicans will just keep destroying our country until we get them out of office and out of the way of our recovery.

    August 29, 2011 at 3:46 pm | Reply
    • Steve

      Well Said!

      August 29, 2011 at 5:00 pm | Reply
    • cony000

      The republican party has been hijacked by the kkk and the Koch Brothers. Their vision is to see the South Rise Again. If you don't stop them. You can't clean out the garbage in our local, state and federal Gov't. The Koch Brothers are spending millions of $$$$ to make sure that Obama is not president a second term. If the koch Brothers get the White House we will be in a heap of trouble.

      August 29, 2011 at 5:04 pm | Reply
  3. ChandraJ

    The reference to the killing of thousands of civilians in Sri Lanka's final battle with the terrorists Tamil Tigers vastly overestimates the number killed (a common mistake by western media). Such references conveniently miss noting that the Tiger terrorists were holding the civilians hostage and as a human shield behind which the coward terrorists hid. Sri Lanka is the ONLY nation to have completely defeated a terrorist group in the age of 9/11. If you need to refer to Sri Lanka as an example, give the public the correct picture - not a heavily biased one.

    August 29, 2011 at 3:50 pm | Reply
  4. Joe, San Diego

    I can't imagine what Michele Bachmann would have done... or Sarah Palin... even John McCain...
    President Obama may read from a teleprompter just like any CEO reading from his notes(better than winging it and making Bachmann errors or forgetting quotes like Bush)
    President Obama can't create jobs out of thin air just ask your mayor or your governor... but Obama's accomplishments are much better than whatever Bush tried to achieve. Obama is still cleaning up 8 years of Bush(really people want to make Obama a one term president but gave idiotic Bush two terms) the same people that don't heed evacuation warnings, the same people Jerry Springer would have on his show, Joe Dirt and Ricky Bobby and Sarah Palin types...
    It is 2011 those older than 55 have been through segregation, women's right to vote, B&W tv, typewriters, cash vs direct deposit... but you still want that mentality in the White House?

    August 29, 2011 at 4:00 pm | Reply
    • rapierpoint

      "Don't heed evacuation warnings"? So all the people stranded on Hatteras are Joe Dirt/Ricky Bobby ignorant type people? When you can afford houses like that, then maybe you've got some credibility to fling the mud. At least Bachmann was joking. You are using people's misfortune to namecall and be spteful.

      August 29, 2011 at 4:50 pm | Reply
  5. keylargo

    Looks like Boehner and his Tea Baggers were wrong......AGAIN!

    August 29, 2011 at 4:02 pm | Reply
  6. keylargo

    Also, remember no American Military have been killed there either. I bet that breaks Dick Cheney's black heart!

    August 29, 2011 at 4:04 pm | Reply
  7. keylargo

    The worst part is there hasn't been a $17 Billion contract for Halliburton to build a road or something!

    August 29, 2011 at 4:05 pm | Reply
  8. EG

    NATO has handed over power in Libya to Al Qaeda/ex mujahadeen rebels. This is a spit in the face to 9/11 victims, Afghanistan/Iraq families, and basically all Americans who have been played. Google "libya al qaeda." If you think CNN keeps you well informed, you are sorely mistaken. Oh by the way, 9/11 first responders are not invited to the 9/11 ten year anniversary at ground zero. Why not?

    August 29, 2011 at 4:08 pm | Reply
  9. Jim

    How tremendously naive. I just heard GW Bush saying: Mission Accomplished. Libya produced a large percentage of the suicide bombers in Iraq. Do you think the bombers are Khadafi Loyalist? Or the same discontented rebels who are throwing out their government today? Just because Saddam and Khadafi are evil, doesn't mean they aren't the lesser of two evils. As for Obama being justified? No one person has the moral authority to order the death of hundreds of others whether they are deserving or not. That is why the Founders saw fit to empower CONGRESS with the power to declare war.

    August 29, 2011 at 4:09 pm | Reply
    • tor5

      I don’t dismiss your point, Jim, but it’s hard to feel comfortable with today’s congress trying to make a decision about anything.

      August 29, 2011 at 5:00 pm | Reply
  10. Bugs

    Yeah, the ends always justify the means when CNN is writing about a Democrat.

    August 29, 2011 at 4:12 pm | Reply
    • cony000

      Democrats or Republicans are all the same. They are one notch below child molesters. So stop crying foul play.

      August 29, 2011 at 4:54 pm | Reply
  11. PittUSMC

    Just another example of our failing foreign policy. We are broke, yet we find a way to make more enemies worldwide. I don't see the news talking about Gadhafi's supporters or the innocent people that had their neighborhoods bombed. America's actions are Al Qaida's best recruiting tool. Once again the imperialistic American empire oversteps it's authority. Stop this madness and fix the problems at home. RON PAUL 2012!!! Before it is too late to save America.

    August 29, 2011 at 4:19 pm | Reply
    • cony000

      Ron Paul or John Paul II can't do a single thing without the senate and congress doing who love to get kick backs from lobbyist. Our Gov't is so corrupted that no president can get anything done.

      August 29, 2011 at 4:52 pm | Reply
      • PittUSMC

        Then we vote them out too! This is our country! It is a matter of time that we either take it back in the ballot box or by a much more undesireable means. The government has become RULERS rather than representatives. We have tried to go with the GOP or DNC establishment puppet and look where we are. If Faux News or the Clinton News Network is continueing to push certain candidates, you can guarantee there is big money telling them to do it! THOSE CANDIDATES DON'T WORK FOR YOU!!!

        August 29, 2011 at 7:05 pm |
  12. EG

    Our troops support Ron Paul. Support our troops. Stop the warmongering.

    August 29, 2011 at 4:21 pm | Reply
  13. johnb3950

    OK, I know to some people these thngs don't matter, but writers who will reach a big audience should get their English right. "...a wave of refugees would effect them" – that's AFFECT – and in a post here "..editorial gaff" – that was a writing gaffe! (A GAFF is a pole either on a sailboat at the upper edge of the sail, , or with a hook on the end for lifting big fish. )

    August 29, 2011 at 4:24 pm | Reply
  14. J

    headline – "Obama walks on water, Republicans decry president's inability to swim"

    August 29, 2011 at 4:27 pm | Reply
  15. Robert Johnson

    With Gadhafi still on the loose, ragtag disorganized rebel forces of unknown composition, and no clue of what a Libyan government, if any, might look like in 12-18 months, it's far too early to declare "Mission Accomplished!". Even if you intensely dislike G W Bush, you should learn from his mistakes.

    August 29, 2011 at 4:33 pm | Reply
    • cony000

      No one is saying mission accomplish.

      August 29, 2011 at 4:46 pm | Reply
  16. Tim in Kansas

    Headline, "Obam walks down sidewalk, trips and breaks foot" Democrats decry it's Bush's fault.

    August 29, 2011 at 4:34 pm | Reply
    • cony000

      Why do you hate half black people?

      August 29, 2011 at 4:45 pm | Reply
      • Tim in Kansas

        well at least you are proof as to why siblings sould not reproduce.

        August 29, 2011 at 4:50 pm |
      • Tim in Kansas

        He's half white, einstein.

        August 29, 2011 at 5:14 pm |
      • Tim in Kansas

        Not all libtards are dumb a new CNN poll shows 27% of them want a diff. candidate than Odummy for President. There is some hope for that side of the fence.

        August 29, 2011 at 5:25 pm |
    • tor5

      Headline: “Bush was worst president ever and it will take time to recover.” It’s amazing to me how badly all the former Bush/Cheney disciples now what to pretend that their presidency never happened.

      August 29, 2011 at 4:53 pm | Reply
      • Tim in Kansas

        Is English your second langauge or are you just an Obama follower? hahahahahahahahahaha

        August 29, 2011 at 4:57 pm |
      • cony000


        August 29, 2011 at 4:58 pm |
    • cony000

      You still did not answer my question. It was a simple question. Let me give you another simple question. Do listen a lot to the banjo playing from the movie deliverence?

      August 29, 2011 at 4:57 pm | Reply
      • Tim in Kansas

        It's looking at lot like it wasn't just siblings who did some breeding in your family, was gandpa involved too and this is how you act out according to your counselor? LOL!

        August 29, 2011 at 5:00 pm |
      • cony000

        You do listen to the Banjos.

        August 29, 2011 at 5:07 pm |
    • tor5

      I’m glad you have such a good sense of humor, Tim. And I’m grateful for your expertise in the English language and incest. Perhaps you can tell me the meaning of these words that you use: “Obam,” “sould,” “langauge,” “gandpa.” Really, your retorts are, well, um… oh, never mind.

      August 29, 2011 at 5:20 pm | Reply
  17. PropagandaPolice

    How appropriate to say what a good job our Nobel PEACE Prize winning president has done at leading the charge to bomb and kill more innocent people in the name of spreading democracy in yet ANOTHER country. USA USA USA!!!!

    August 29, 2011 at 4:35 pm | Reply
  18. tor5

    Surely these Arab Spring matters are complicated, and the future of Libya is hard to predict. But you have to say so far, so good. Let us not forget that the Teapublicans were quite vocal in their demands for Obama to “quit dithering.” It’s never been clear to me what their plan is, but God forbid one of these reactionaries ever gets in charge of anything important.

    August 29, 2011 at 4:43 pm | Reply
  19. rapierpoint

    Interesting. It's a significant triumph of foreign policy, yet it's a unique case and unlikely to be repeated. Then the author goes on to explain that the conditions were perfect for the foreign policy. Personally, I wouldn't be touting a triumph of policy if all these conditions had to be perfect for it to succeed.

    August 29, 2011 at 4:43 pm | Reply
  20. Conan the Librarian

    it seems to me that the whole Libya thing was/is about oil – pure and simple. But is European oil – we protected France's butt once again. Why did we do this? To keep the Euro economy from tanking and have a negative impact on the US – right before the subtle re-election activities start. Like Obama's BS visit to the Midwest – that was a campaign counter move pure and simple. It was postured as get out and talk to the people exercise so that the taxpayers would have to cover the cost – which was in the $30+M range for 3 days.
    Attacking Libya was a move to save Europe – nuff' said !!

    August 29, 2011 at 4:46 pm | Reply
  21. PittUSMC

    R2P – Right 2 Pry into other countries affairs because we are the big bad Americans and the people making the decision to attack will NEVER have to risk life or limb for their decisions! Stop the madness. RON PAUL 2012!!! Semper Fidelis.

    August 29, 2011 at 4:49 pm | Reply
  22. bgb

    This editorial strikes me as pure political spin doctoring. 1. How do we know Obama and his NATO allies haven't just helped hand Libya to Islamic extremists, maybe even Al Qaeda? 2. Why Libya and not Syria or Somalia? Where is the moral and strategic imperative here? Patrick never explaiins.

    August 29, 2011 at 4:50 pm | Reply
  23. Vanilla Gorilla

    there has been a lot of speculation from outside the US that our involvement in the Libya fiasco was part of an agreement with Germany, France and England to save the euro based economy – which is more fragile then most really understand.
    Cut off the supply of Libyan oil and there could have been dire consequences in Europe that would have a substantial negative impact on our economy. Check some other news sources other then BS we are fed in this country.

    August 29, 2011 at 4:51 pm | Reply
  24. Tim in Kansas

    Syria has a whole bunch of WMD's the can of worms that would open would be a mess bgb which is why nobody is touching it and they are killing people left and right. Their situation is much worse than Libya but they aren't going to just be punk'd out of power.

    August 29, 2011 at 5:02 pm | Reply
  25. swiftcall

    I've wanted his head since discotech bombing in Germany. Remember when he took credit for live on national TV, and Reagan was like "Well...", and bombed him? Blew his up his dog house even.

    Obama finished Reagans job, even if none of you chuckle-head supported him, I sure did because I remember. And it only cost $1 billion dollars and zero American lives. Score!

    August 29, 2011 at 5:28 pm | Reply
    • tor5

      Exactly. Funny how Obama kills Bin Laden and gets rid of Gadhafi when previous presidents failed. Yet all the critics can do is second guess Obama’s tactics. They have no sense of history. It's like they can’t remember anything past 2009.

      August 29, 2011 at 5:49 pm | Reply
  26. Bob H

    Okay, Obama removed a despot, just like Bush did in Iraq. Egypt is brewing in the Sinai. Does this mean this administration therefore also subscribes to NEOCON values? I say this because this administration, and its principal leaders, are following the same principles established in 1997 by NEOCONs. Wonder where I'm coming from? Check out .

    When a fair and just government stands, then there is something to talk about. It's easy to topple a government, harder to build one.


    August 29, 2011 at 9:57 pm | Reply
  27. Bob H

    Here's a related piece just published by the Heritage Foundation....


    August 29, 2011 at 10:11 pm | Reply
  28. Rey

    We helped Catro in Cuba too and look how that turned out. All Obama has done in Libya is either paved the way for a new dictator or started a long period of civil war like in Somalia. This story is not going to have a happy ending and Obama is a fool.

    August 30, 2011 at 8:06 pm | Reply
  29. Freddy

    What is this nut job Samantha Power talking about? We need to apologize? For what?? We didn't kill 3,000 people on 9/11, Muslims did. We didn't kill 3,000 helpless unarmed protesters in Syria in the last 4 months, Muslims did! We didn't gas 10,000 Kurds in northern Iraq, Muslims did. The U.N estimates over 300,000 people killed in Darfur. We didn't kill those people, Muslims did! We didn't kill 200 people in the Mumbai India attack, Muslims did! We didn't kill the people in the 2002 & 2005 Bali bombings, Muslims did. Muslims bombed the USS Cole, London Bus bombing, bombing in Kenya, Subway bombing in Madrid killing 191 innocent people. America didn't threaten to wipe another country of the map, Muslims did. Muslims have killed more of their own than any other race of people on Earth. Yet this stupid commie broad thinks we owe these people an apology! It's no wonder she's part of Obama's cabinet. Anti-Americans flourish in the commie Obama administration.

    Please Samantha, do us all a favor and change your name to Samantha Putz. Stay off the crack cocaine lady. You're a pathetic Anti-American, Anti-Semetic leftist apologetic moron and everyone knows it!

    August 31, 2011 at 4:10 pm | Reply
  30. Luanna Keglovic

    I'd need to examine with you here. Which isn't something I often do! I enjoy studying a submit that can make people think. Additionally, thanks for permitting me to remark!

    November 17, 2011 at 1:42 am | Reply
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