Act. Now.

The world must do more than watch the Libyan bloodletting.

-/AFP/Getty Images
-/AFP/Getty Images

The unfolding catastrophe in Libya has forced the world to once again grapple with the conundrum of international humanitarian intervention. However, recent efforts at intervention — notably the humiliating episode in Somalia and the terrible failure to act in Rwanda — have revealed both the risks of action and the costs of inaction.

Muammar al-Qaddafi’s bloodcurdling speech on Feb. 22 should force even skeptics of international intervention to think twice. In his defiant remarks, the Libyan dictator vowed to "cleanse Libya house by house" in order to stay in power. Qaddafi also insisted that he has not begun to crack down in earnest — despite sketchy reports that his effort to quell the protests has already left hundreds, possibly thousands, of unarmed people dead — and approvingly cited other uses of state security forces to quell unrest, such as the Chinese assault on Tiananmen Square and the U.S. actions in Waco and Fallujah.

Neither the United States nor the international community should be under any illusions about the extraordinary costs of humanitarian intervention. However, it is becoming increasingly clear that these difficulties are outweighed by the risks of standing by and watching events unfold without taking any meaningful action.

Let’s start with the arguments against a full-throated intervention: There is little the United States can do on its own, and the scope of any potential engagement will have to be based on a broad-based international consensus. Even basic options, such as economic sanctions and the freezing of regime assets, will require support from countries such as Russia and China to have an effect. But these economic measures take time to make their impact felt, and they will certainly not produce, and probably won’t seriously accelerate, regime change. Nor will they come quickly enough to stop Qaddafi’s bloodletting of his own population.

Dissident Libyan diplomats, including the former deputy ambassador to the United Nations, have called for the more ambitious proposal of establishing a no-fly zone throughout the country. This would prevent the Qaddafi regime from continuing its use of warplanes and helicopters against the protesters. It might also inhibit the regime’s ability to ferry in foreign mercenaries, on whom it appears to be relying in the face of growing military defections. And, of course, it would undermine the regime’s ability to control the country at large.

Senior U.S. and NATO officials have so far not expressed any serious interest in becoming embroiled in the crisis in Libya, though the White House has refused to definitively take any option off the table. There are legitimate concerns about the long-term impact and short-term efficacy of aggressive intervention. Establishing a no-fly zone might place Americans and other Westerners still in Libya at risk, and compromise important Western economic interests. It could provide "evidence" for regime accusations that the rebellion is essentially an American plot, undermining the opposition movement in some people’s eyes. Moreover, the international community may also feel that it simply lacks sufficient information about the forces at work within Libya to be entirely certain about what kind of outcome even a limited no-fly zone intervention would be promoting.

Even more ominously, if the regime holds on to power in Tripoli and some other regions for an extended period of time, a no-fly zone might set the stage for the long-term fragmentation of the country by consolidating the rule of various factions, including the government, in different parts of the country. If Libya is fractured between local groups, it may be very difficult to reunite the country — possibly encouraging the development of a Somalia-style failed state in a strategic area of North Africa. The most significant concern, however, must be that a no-fly zone will simply be ineffective in preventing the escalation of the already enormous humanitarian crisis. As Qaddafi’s use of mercenaries and loyal military units has shown, air power is not necessary to commit atrocities on the ground, especially against unarmed or lightly armed demonstrators.

And then there’s the issue of escalation: Once the United States or the international community commits to protecting the Libyan people from their own government, it could prove very difficult to justify persisting with a no-fly zone policy when only intervention on the ground would stop the carnage. The example of the establishment of a no-fly zone over southern Iraq following the Gulf War — which did nothing, of course, to stop Saddam Hussein from deploying his troops to crush the incipient revolt — still looms large as a shameful incident in U.S. policy. Fear of being sucked into the use of ground forces — with far greater potential blowback, internal and international opposition, and unintended consequences — is also undoubtedly driving international caution.

But U.S. policymakers must not only consider the risks of intervention — they, and the rest of the international community, also need to contemplate the grave risks of doing nothing. The United States and its allies are now forced to deal with an emerging new order in the Middle East; it is squarely in their interest to place themselves on the side of popular demands for reform, democratization, and the removal of unaccountable leaders who have held power for decades. It’s not too late for the United States to be perceived as a positive force for change rather than a guardian of the old regional order, but standing idle while Libya burns would send the wrong message to the people of the region. Forging a broad international consensus for strong actions on Libya would be the wisest political and strategic course for the United States.

Symbolic actions such as freezing assets and economic sanctions are already overdue. A no-fly zone, in spite of its obvious limitations, should be organized as quickly as possible. Its creation will imply a commitment to protect the Libyan people from serious, sustained mass atrocities, and if it comes to that, the international community should be prepared to live up to its responsibilities — in spite of the present risks. The dangers of escalation shouldn’t be overblown: The regime’s unpopularity, its loss of control of much of the country and growing military, bureaucratic, and diplomatic defections suggest that Western boots on the ground could well be unnecessary.

The international community not only has solid practical reasons to intervene in Libya — it has a legal obligation. The invocation of the principle of the "responsibility to protect," which was developed post-Rwanda and endorsed by the U.N. Security Council in 2006, may become unavoidable if the situation in Libya continues to deteriorate. The doctrine commits the international community to taking timely and decisive action to stop mass atrocities when states are either committing, or unable to stop, them. Can anyone seriously doubt that this is becoming increasingly applicable to Libya?

International action in Libya also provides the United States and its allies with an opportunity to make an important and positive contribution to the upheaval currently under way across the Middle East. The widespread alarm in the Arab world about the Qaddafi regime’s brutal tactics against the Libyan people means that aggressive international action would almost certainly be welcomed by the Arab public. Unlike other Western interventions in the region, humanitarian action in Libya would place the United States and the West on the side of the aspirations of millions of ordinary Arabs — and on the right side of history and the wave of democratization sweeping the region.

Hussein Ibish is a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.

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