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.