A natural gas fire billows smoke into the air, as opposition fighters continue to advance west of Ras Lanuf, Libya, on March 9, 2011. (Photo: Tyler Hicks / The New York Times)
The grotesque spectacle of Muammar Gaddafi using his air force to bomb and strafe protesters has to give any thinking person pause. But hand-wringing is one thing; doing something about a foreign ruler's atrocities is something else entirely.
In many western capitals there is a lot of talk about moving to contain the violence in Libya by imposing a ‘no-fly zone' throughout the country. The idea has rapidly gathered public support.
On one level it is easy to understand why. Moments like these create a kind of desperate energy. People want to do something. For concerned outsiders, a no-fly zone's appeal is obvious: it offers, or at least appears to offer, a way of supporting the anti-Gaddafi protesters without getting deeply involved in what looks more and more like a civil war.
No one doubts that any western air force could take control of the skies over Libya with relative ease. The question is, what happens next? That is where the situation becomes far less clear-cut and the unanswered questions loom larger.
Over his four decades in power Gaddafi has become a unique figure on the world stage. It long ago became commonplace for business and political leaders to question the Libyan leader's mental stability and laugh at his theatrical excesses even as they trekked to his ‘Bedouin tent' (erected inside a modern military base) to plead for his favour. The potential reward: a bit of Libya's oil wealth in the form of commercial agreements, arms sales or visas for expatriate labourers.
Whatever Gaddafi's mental state may be, his ability to consolidate and keep power over more than four decades speaks to someone adept at playing Libya's tribes off against one another, manipulating the country's institutions (such as they are) and using ruthless force whenever he thought it necessary.
As the world has seen over the last few weeks, the colonel, faced with mounting unrest, has no intention of going quietly.A no-fly zone would seem to be a way for well-intentioned outsiders to give Libya's pro-democracy forces a fighting chance. Things may not, however, be a simple as they seem.
US Defence Secretary Robert Gates has emerged in recent days as a significant voice of caution, warning that this idea involves more than sending fighter jets out on patrol.
"Let's just call a spade a spade," he told a congressional committee recently. "A no-fly zone begins with an attack on Libya to destroy the air defences. 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 getting shot down. But that's the way it starts."
The real problem is what comes next. Gates' warning — unspoken, but strongly implied — is that a no-fly zone may inevitably come to seem inadequate.
Aircraft are useful to a leader who wants to kill large numbers of his own people, but they are far from essential. While reports of Gaddafi sending Libyan pilots to attack protesters are dramatic, there is no indication that these air assaults are the primary source of violence in Libya.
Once the no-fly zone is in place and it becomes clear that the killing and fighting have barely slowed down, what are foreign leaders going to do then? Do they intervene more directly and begin bombing government positions on the rebels' behalf?
Failure to escalate may leave the international community looking callous, but doing so risks plunging militarily into a society that few in the Middle East, let alone the West, really understand.
The mounting public support for a no-fly zone stems from admirable humanitarian impulses, but I think it is safe to say that absolutely no one in America (or elsewhere in the West) has any appetite for another land war in the Middle East right now.
That being the case the international community ought to be wary of offering Libya's opposition token support that it knows it will not back with stronger measures should things continue to deteriorate. To do so runs the serious risk of making a bad situation even worse.
Libya's civil war is a humanitarian tragedy. Outside intervention might —might — be able to bring it to a relatively speedy end. But it can do so only if that intervention is of a level, intensity and duration that, frankly, no Arab power has the ability to carry out right now, and for which no western power has the stomach.
Gordon Robison is a writer and commentator who has covered the Middle East for ABC News, CNN and Fox since the 1980s. He teaches Middle East Politics at the University of Vermont and has taught Islamic history at Emerson College.