Among the varied centers of popular uprisings recently across the Arab world, the case for giving aid to the rebels has been most easily made for Libya. Its brave reformers challenged the brutal 40-year tyranny of Moammar Gadhafi and made early gains, taking towns and planning to march on Tripoli. Then the dictator deployed his army and superior firepower to beat back the rebels and retake lost cities. With the likelihood that Gadhafi's military would soon crush the rebels' bastion in Benghazi, the United States, France, Great Britain and several members of the Arab League finally secured United Nations' approval Thursday to enforce a no-fly zone and a mandatory cease-fire by Gadhafi, and U.N. authority to use "all means necessary" to protect civilians from assaults by the embattled dictator.
The U.N. mandate also requires Gadhafi to pull back his troops from embattled towns and cities and to quickly restore electricity, water and utility services to the general population.
There has to be heartfelt support among citizens of watching nations everywhere for the U.N.-approved effort to save the lives and promote the ascendancy of the Libyan rebels. Their struggle to oust the Gadhafi regime was clearly inspired by more peaceful and successful democratic uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, but it was destined from the outset to face great odds and the virtual certainty of violence and armed struggle.
From the viewpoint of humane relief and solidarity behind a just cause, the U.N. resolution and efforts now being made by the coalition to keep Gadhafi at bay seem easily supportable. It is, however, just the first step into a murky and fluid situation filled with potential pitfalls and hazardous unknowns across a range of political, logistical, military and diplomatic issues.
In announcing U.S. participation in enforcing the no-fly zone and restraining Gadhafi from harming innocent Libyan civilians, President Obama clearly fixed a limit on Washington's role. The United States, he said, would not use ground troops and would not engage in the actual fighting in Libya. Rather, he said, the U.S. would serve as an "enabler" to help needed military initiatives in Libya by the other allies.
Washington's chief role apparently will be to put eyes in the sky with 24/7 aerial surveillance and to help direct suppression efforts by French and British fighter pilots if Gadhafi tries to put his warplanes in the air. The U.S. may also quietly help funnel supplies and arms to rebel fighters if they are permitted to build up a force to renew the effort to oust Gadhafi.
The backdrop role adopted by Obama makes good sense for American foreign policy. The United States still has a military force in Iraq, carries the main burden in the war in Afghanistan and is engaged in an intense and barely hidden anti-Taliban campaign in Pakistan. This nation doesn't need to be engaged in fighting in yet another Muslim country.
There are many questions and unknowns, moreover, about the duration and range of the use of force in and over Libya, and the consequences that might arise if a stalemate or a grinding ground campaign takes root in Libya, or causes the engagement of western fighters against Arabs.
The U.N.-blessed coalition forces have, in fact, essentially declared a conditional war on Libya. Though foreign aid in behalf of Libyan rebels may be viewed sympathetically at the moment in other Arab and Muslim lands, that could change rapidly if western forces are seen to be killing Arab fighters. Even though the initiative is partially shielded by the membership of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Jordan, the political fallout over the western role against Libya could ignite another strong wave of anti-western backlash across the Arab world, and possibly spur terrorism.
The intervention also raises issues of balance and fairness with respect to other protest movements that are now being brutally suppressed by the autocratic governments of Bahrain, Yemen and Saudi Arabia. An estimated 40 protesters were killed by state forces in Yemen on Friday. Bahrain, which has already used deadly force and secret detentions to suppress a peaceful uprising, tore down on Friday the monument at Pearl Square that had become the chief rallying point for the oppressed Shiite majority, which had followed Tunisians and Egyptians into the streets.
Saudi Arabia's military intrusion into Bahrain to help the minority Sunni government suppress Shiite protesters has gone largely unremarked in the West. Similar laxity has been allowed for Jordan and Saudi Arabia as their autocratic regimes continue to suppress rallies for governmental reform. Even in Egypt, the transitional government has begun using harsh measures to stifle continued protests by democracy advocates.
If the intervention in Libya is short-lived and helps the rebels oust Gadhafi without much military help on the ground from the West, it may win wide support. But there's no assurance of such a neat, happy ending. Still, it beats the alternative of watching Gadhafi slaughter Libya's brave rebels. The dictator, on the verge Thursday of retaking Benghazi by force, had just promised there would be "no mercy and no pity." It would have been wrong to stand by and watch the outcome of that pledge.