By Jeb Sharp
The revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt were relatively peaceful but the uprising in Libya has quickly turned into civil war. Muammar Gaddafi has shown – in word and deed – that he will target civilians who oppose him.
Bruce Jentleson is a professor at Duke University and was until recently a senior advisor in the US State Department.
"We can't just sit on the sideline if this continues to escalate to huge atrocities against the Libyan people," Jentleson said. "Yet we also know that the choices we have, none of them are guaranteed to work and all of them have lots of really difficult elements."
The choice that's been most bandied about so far is a no fly zone. British leader David Cameron has called for one. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has acknowledged the idea is under consideration. But Defense Secretary Robert Gates says there should be no illusions about what a no fly zone actually means.
"A no fly zone begins with an attack on Libya, to destroy the air defenses," Gates said earlier this week. "That's the way you do a no fly zone. And then you can fly planes around the country and not worry about our guys being shot down. But that's the way it starts but it also requires more airplanes than you would find on a single aircraft carrier, so it is a big operation in a big country."
And Gates has made it clear he's in no mood for new military adventures while he's still got his hands full with Iraq and Afghanistan. But there's considerable pressure building for some sort of intervention. The opposition in Libya is specifically calling for a no fly zone.
The merits of a no fly zone
Michael Knights is a Lafer Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. He has studied the merits of no fly zones.
"No fly zones are the option that the international community naturally grabs for at moments like this," said Knights. "They were very successful for instance in protecting the Kurdish enclave in northern Iraq during a similar humanitarian crisis at the end of the 1991 Gulf War.
"A small state came out of that experience of protecting with a no fly zone. However that's one of the downsides of no fly zones: sometimes they can be in place for a very long time. They're easy to start but very hard to end and they're very resource intensive."
Knights says there are other options though – the US for instance could bomb Gaddafi's runways and air defenses without necessarily committing to long-term patrols over Libyan air space.
"As long as the US got a UN resolution backing the no fly zones that was time limited, then the US would not be stuck in some open-ended policing operation that as in the case of Iraq, lasted a decade," said Knights.
A UN resolution would seem to be key to any US intervention, given the troubled legacy of the US-led invasion of Iraq. President Obama has signalled he doesn't want to do anything unilaterally.
But any US participation at all carries risks, given the strength of anti-American sentiment in the region. As Knights points out, if the US provides military support but fails to overthrow Gaddafi, then the US might feel responsible for protecting the opposition indefinitely. You also don't want to raise hopes and then dash them as the first Bush Administration did in Iraq.
"After the 1991 uprising in Iraq, where the rebels almost toppled Saddam, but then failed and were severely repressed, that left a lasting legacy of resentment toward the US that has played into the insurgency we've seen since 2003," said Knights. "People in southern Iraq never forgot the fact that the US encouraged them to rise up and then did not support them."
Grappling with failure
In the years since the international community has grappled with its failure to stop mass killing in Bosnia, Rwanda and the Darfur region of Sudan. In 2005 the UN General Assembly endorsed an evolving principle known as the responsibility to protect.
The idea is that the international community should intervene – however it can – when a government sets about slaughtering its own people. Former Libyan foreign ministry official Murad Hemayma has just defected. He invoked the principle in an interview with the BBC.
"The international community has a duty to protect," said Hemayma. "We don't want another Rwanda on our hands."
Rwanda looms large in Bruce Jentleson's mind as well.
"If this continues to escalate, and the international community does not act, and you have a genuine instance of crimes against humanity," said Jentleson, "If we don't act in that situation, the thing that really resonates with me is the question of when will we act?"
For now though, any overt military assistance from outside seems a long way off. The hope is that the Libyan people will manage to bring Gaddafi down by themselves.