This commentary was published in Foreign Policy on 21/02/2011
The unfolding situation in Libya has been horrible to behold. No matter how many times we warn that dictators will do what they must to stay in power, it is still shocking to see the images of brutalized civilians which have been flooding al-Jazeera and circulating on the internet. We should not be fooled by Libya's geographic proximity to Egypt and Tunisia, or guided by the debates over how the United States could best help a peaceful protest movement achieve democratic change. The appropriate comparison is Bosnia or Kosovo, or even Rwanda where a massacre is unfolding on live television and the world is challenged to act. It is time for the United States, NATO, the United Nations and the Arab League to act forcefully to try to prevent the already bloody situation from degenerating into something much worse.
By acting, I mean a response sufficiently forceful and direct to deter or prevent the Libyan regime from using its military resources to butcher its opponents. I have already seen reports that NATO has sternly warned Libya against further violence against its people. Making that credible could mean the declaration and enforcement of a no-fly zone over Libya, presumably by NATO, to prevent the use of military aircraft against the protestors. It could also mean a clear declaration that members of the regime and military will be held individually responsible for any future deaths. The U.S. should call for an urgent, immediate Security Council meeting and push for a strong resolution condeming Libya's use of violence and authorizing targeted sanctions against the regime. Such steps could stand a chance of reversing the course of a rapidly deteriorating situation. An effective international response could not only save many Libyan lives, it might also send a powerful warning to other Arab leaders who might contemplate following suit against their own protest movements.
I don't have any illusions that the outside world can control what happens in Libya, if the regime really wants to try to hold power by force. I don't call for a direct military intervention. And I am keenly, painfully aware of all that could go wrong with even the kinds of responses I am recommending. But right now those fears are outweighed by the urgent imperative of trying to prevent the already bloody situation from getting much, much worse. This is not a peaceful democracy protest movement which the United States can best help by pressuring allied regimes from above, pushing for long-term and meaningful reform, and persuading the military to refrain from violence. It's gone well beyond that already, and this time I find myself on the side of those demanding more forceful action before it's too late. The steady stream of highly public defections from the regime suggest that rapid change is possible, yesterday's speech by Saif al-Islam Qaddafi and today's events suggest that so is terrible violence.
There is no avoiding what is happening in Libya. Al-Jazeera Arabic has been covering the Libyan situation heavily for the last couple of days and has powerfully conveyed the gravity of the situation, including broadcasting some truly disturbing images and video of protestors. I've been stunned by what Libyans inside the country and outside have been willing to say on the air about the regime --- prominent Libyan diplomats declaring Qaddafi to by a tyrant, major tribal leaders calling for his overthrow, Yusuf al-Qaradawi calling on the air for someone to shoot Qaddafi, and more. The Arab world's attention is focused on Libya now, after several days of a fragmented news agenda divided among Libya, Yemen, Bahrain, Egypt and more. Voice after voice, Libyans and other Arabs alike, denounce the silence of the international community and call for action. Qaddafi has few friends, and Qatar has called for an urgent Arab League meeting to deal with the crisis. While history doesn't suggest we can expect all that much from that club, their public support for international action could go a long way towards overcoming any suggestion that this is an imperialist venture.
That's all for now.