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.