Time for Intervention Running Out

Nonetheless, discussion of possible military action continued apace Monday, with Libya topping the agenda of a foreign ministers’ meeting of the Group of Eight in Paris and the U.N. Security Council meeting behind closed doors late Monday to take up an unprecedented appeal by the Arab League to impose a no-fly zone over parts of Libya.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was also scheduled to meet late Monday in Paris with envoys from the provisional government established in Benghazi who were expected to press her both for formal diplomatic recognition and for immediate U.S. military assistance in the form of a no-fly zone over the eastern part of the country.

Meanwhile, President Barack Obama, in a brief White House appearance with visiting Danish Prime Minister Lars Lokke Rasmussen, reiterated that Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi “needs to leave” but gave little hint as to whether Washington supports a no-fly zone or other military steps to protect the rebel government or reverse the current tide of battle.

“(I)t’s going to be very important for us to look at a wide range of options that continue to tighten the noose around Mr. Gaddafi and apply additional pressure,” he told reporters.

“And so we will be continuing to coordinate closely both through NATO as well as the United Nations and other international fora to look at every single option that’s available to us in bringing about a better outcome for the Libyan people,” he said.

The day’s events came amid a remarkably vigorous public debate here over whether and, if so, how Washington should intervene militarily in the nearly four-week-old conflict in Libya, even as Gaddafi’s forces appeared to make substantial gains in their eastward drive against the rebels.

Over the weekend, government forces, using tanks, infantry, and helicopters, reportedly retook Zawiyah, near Tripoli, and laid siege to Misurata, the only other western city that remained in rebel hands late last week. At the same time, they reportedly secured the critical oil refinery town of Ras Lanuf and captured most of Brega, 110 kms to the east.

On Monday, residents of Ajdabiya reported that their city, located only about 160 kms from Benghazi, had come under attack by air and by artillery.

The speed of the Gaddafi forces’ advance and the apparent inability of the rebels to resist the regime’s superior firepower have underlined for analysts here how little time may remain for any effective intervention on the part of foreign powers.

“It seems to me that the debate that is taking place here may soon be moot in that Gaddafi’s forces seem to be taking back ground at a rate that may make it too late for the international community to really turn the tide,” according to Charles Kupchan, a foreign policy expert at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR).

Nonetheless, that debate, which began in earnest when it became clear that Gaddafi, unlike Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, was determined to deploy military force against popular demands for his ouster, has continued to rage among elite sectors here, even as the aftermath of Friday’s earthquake and tsunami in Japan has diverted the attention of the mass media from Libya.

Like the controversy in the 1990s over U.S. intervention in the Balkans, the debate has generally pitted hawkish neo- conservatives and liberal interventionists on the one hand against foreign policy “realists” and some regional specialists on the other.

Among the most-recent entries on the interventionist side have been former President Bill Clinton, who came out in support of a no-fly zone at a women’s conference in New York late last week; former President George W. Bush’s deputy defence secretary, Paul Wolfowitz; and Hillary Clinton’s recently departed policy planning chief, Princeton University Prof. Anne-Marie Slaughter.

In a New York Times op-ed published Monday, Slaughter charged the Obama administration and the European Union (EU) – which, while calling on Gaddafi to resign, failed to agree on a common position on military action at a Friday summit in Brussels – with “temporising on a no-flight zone”.

If the Security Council failed to authorise one, she went on, Washington should recognise the rebel regime in Benghazi as the legitimate government, as France and Portugal did last week, and work with the Arab League to give it any aid it requests.

But the realists, including Gen. Wesley Clark (ret.), who commanded NATO’s 1999 Kosovo campaign under Bill Clinton, have expressed scepticism, noting that a no-fly zone or even the provision of direct military aid could become a “slippery slope” into a much bigger intervention that Washington can ill afford given its ongoing commitments in Iraq and Afghanistan and the possibility of a regional backlash.

“A no-fly zone in Libya may seem straightforward at first, but if Gaddafi continues to advance, the time will come for airstrikes, extended bombing and ground troops – a stretch for an already overcommitted force,” Clark wrote in the Washington Post Sunday.

“If we’re serious about doing things to give the rebels a real chance of defeating and toppling Gaddafi, it will take much more than grounding the Libyan air force, and halfway measures could do more harm than good,” Kupchan agreed.

“I think that caution appears to be prevailing on both sides of the Atlantic, and that the voices in favour of intervention are significant but thus far losing the debate,” he noted, adding the Arab League’s endorsement, while significant, would not itself tip the balance in either Washington or Brussels unless Arab states are willing to offer more than political and diplomatic support to military action.

Perhaps the strongest argument made by the interventionists – or at least the one with the greatest political resonance here – is that Gaddafi’s victory could reduce or even reverse the momentum of the pro-democracy movement that has swept across the Arab world over the past two months.

“If he survives, the virus of repressive bloodshed and unyielding autocracy could flow back through the region,” noted Washington Post columnist Jackson Diehl, and Kupchan conceded it would constitute a “definite setback for the democracy movement”.

But Obama, even while he has repeatedly called for Gaddafi’s ouster, has already shown some ambivalence toward opposition movements, particularly in Bahrain and Yemen where U.S.- backed leaders have been fending off popular demands for radical reform for several weeks.

“Confronted with conflicting advice on what to do, the final coin thrown into the balance on the side of inaction on the part of the White House might have been that doing nothing in this case would quite possibly reduce the boldness of reformists, oppositionists, etc. more generally,” according to Wayne White, a former senior State Department Middle East analyst. “The U.S. is, after all, largely a status quo power.”