Should the world intervene in Libya’s war?

’There is a risk of escalation’

There is a war on between the regime of Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi and the Libyan people. In calling on Gadhafi to leave, many foreign governments — including Canada’s — have picked sides. The inevitable question that follows is: what are they prepared to do about it?

The answer, so far, has been sanctions, an asset freeze, travel bans, and a request that the International Criminal Court investigate members of the regime for possible crimes against humanity. Canada has also banned financial transactions with the Libyan government and its institutions, including the Libyan central bank. France and the United States are sending humanitarian aid directly to opposition-held areas of the country.

This is all well and good. While none of these measures are likely to persuade Gadhafi to give up, they intensify pressure to defect on those close to him, and assert that we are not neutral in a conflict with a profound moral dimension.

But what if they are not enough? What if Gadhafi and his thuggish friends and relations manage to hold on to Tripoli and fight back, driving the death toll ever higher? Ghadhafi has already shown a willingness to do whatever is necessary, including mass murder, to stay in power. If this continues, we in the outside world who have endorsed his ouster will face much more difficult questions. There’s no point ducking them now.

Among proponents of preparing for military intervention is Shadi Hamid, director of research at the Brooking Institution’s Doha Center.

“Fortunately, it seems like the Libyans are doing a good job on their own. One side is winning and the other side is losing. As long as that appears to be the case, we don’t need to get ahead of ourselves and talk about more drastic military action,” he said in an interview with Maclean’s.

“If push comes to shove, and we’re talking about tens of thousands killed a week or two from now, if there’s no quick conclusion to this, then I think we have to consider a different set of policy options and take more decisive military action. And that’s when we can start to talk about some sort of military intervention.”

A starting point might be imposing a no-fly zone on Libya, meaning that attempts by Gadhafi’s regime to use planes and helicopters against the opposition will be met with force, and that planes carrying mercenaries into Libya will similarly be engaged. Hamid admits it’s a potentially hazardous policy. “There is a risk of escalation. Once you start moving in that direction, you don’t know where you’re going to end up.”

Elliott Abrams, senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, is not opposed to a no-fly zone, but he isn’t sure how effective it might be, given that most of the war so far has been fought on the ground. But he too says the outside world should be prepared to intervene more forcibly to influence the course of the Libyan war.

“I don’t think there’s any taste in Western Europe or the United States for putting people on the ground,” he says. But there are other options.

“Let’s be candid about this. What about arming the rebels? If the opposition is losing for lack of arms, give them arms. If Gadhafi’s much better armed forces begin to win this war, are we prepared to stand by and see him win it, and then wreak vengeance on the opposition?”

Abrams, who was deputy national security advisor for the Middle East during the George W. Bush administration, says arming Gadhafi’s foes might be most effectively done through Egypt or Saudi Arabia, and need not be publicized.

“There are planeloads going in with humanitarian goods,” he says. “One of them could carry some other stuff too.”

Ibrahim Sharqieh, deputy director of the Brookings Doha Center, is wary about any sort of outside military intervention.

“This is a revolution about justice and dignity and liberation and freedom from a dictatorship,” he says. “It would not receive the support of the Libyan people to replace a dictatorship through military intervention. It’s against the whole idea of a revolution. It’s about the Libyan people deciding for themselves.”

Hamid agrees that outside help, especially American, might give fuel to Gadhafi’s propaganda about resisting foreign aggression. And he says many in the Middle East don’t trust the United States because of its long support of friendly dictators in the region. But he says the United States now has an opportunity to change this and build goodwill among people who may soon be free.

“We have a lot to account for in terms of failing to support the popular aspirations of Arab people. It’s precisely because we’ve failed so much in the past that it’s incumbent to get it right this time,” he says.

“I think it would embolden pro-democracy forces all across Libya if they saw that the outside world was standing by them, and was willing to fight with them, and willing to protect them. Do we want to be remembered as doing nothing as the Libyans fought for their freedom, and died for their freedom, and we let them down? That would be a terrible legacy, and one that would stick to the United States and the international community for quite some time.”

For now, Western military doesn’t appear to be necessary. The opposition in Libya has taken over much of the country and vows to move on Tripoli. In areas under its control, committees are springing tackle the mundane but vital tasks of civic administration.

“Not only Libyans, but Arabs across the region, have shown they have a knack for democracy,” says Hamid. “They get this stuff. They care about it and are willing to fight for it. And once they have the opportunity, they seem to do a pretty good job of running their own affairs.”