The Monitor's View

No fly zone over Libya? Obama must take a stand soon.

The US is weighing a no-fly zone in Libya that might prevent Qaddafi from more attacks on rebel forces. Obama must weigh key lessons from history before acting.

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President Obama can be excused for his hesitation to send US fighter jets into Libya’s civil war.

The world’s motive to protect innocent people and anti-Qaddafi freedom forces has so far been correct – as seen in various sanctions imposed on what remains of the Libyan regime. And Mr. Obama’s decision to send US warships to the shores of Tripoli is a wise precautionary step, in case of a critical humanitarian need.

But the political will of Americans to intervene with force and the economic means to do so just aren’t there – yet. Dangerous levels of US debt and an overextended military have weakened the world’s sole superpower in its historic role as defender of the free world.

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As in Tunisia and Egypt, the best outcome would be for Libyans themselves to oust their dictator, Muammar Qaddafi, without military help from outside powers like the United States. Events are moving fast, and it’s difficult to know which way this budding revolution will go. The rebels in Libya’s east are debating whether to ask for outside help.

Still, the potential repercussions of not acting militarily need to be seriously weighed – and not just in the Oval Office, Pentagon, and State Department.

What if this North African country of 6 million people becomes another Rwanda or Kosovo, with genocidal violence?

Mr. Qaddafi is a ruthless dictator with a record of vengeance against opponents – as seen in recent days as he has become more isolated. The morality of letting him commit mass killing needs to be debated widely now – and not after the fact, as was the case with Rwanda’s genocide.

It was the West’s mistake not to intervene in that 1994 African massacre that helped persuade NATO in 1999 to save Kosovo from Serbian atrocities. In 2000, Britain’s military intervention in Sierra Leone was also done to prevent a slaughter. Obama would be wise to engage China and Russia, as key United Nations Security Council members, on their degree of support for humanitarian intervention in Libya.

And what if Qaddafi is able to crush this uprising for democracy, which could then dampen the Arab awakening in other countries? A historic moment might be lost to transform the terror-exporting Middle East.

Not to save a popular and large democratic movement would send a signal to at least one key American ally. If the US won’t help Libya on its verge of freedom, would it also not defend South Korea against a North Korean invasion?

Taiwan, too, may decide that the US won’t come to its aid in another showdown of force with mainland China. Japan may muscle up its military, assuming Americans have now turned inward.

Still, Obama’s reluctance to act militarily could also be informed by past US failures – in Vietnam, Lebanon, and Somalia. He may be a follower of the so-called Powell doctrine (named after former military chief Colin Powell) that the US military must act with overwhelming force to ensure victory in any intervention, must have the strong backing of American opinion, and must have an exit strategy.

The president must balance intervention for either humanitarian reasons or the strategic interest in a democratic Arab world against America’s domestic weariness and the possibility of failure.

Just last week, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates warned that if any future defense chef advises a land war in Asia or the Middle East to a US president, he should “have his head examined.”

In the meantime, Obama could seek leadership from other countries in deploying force in Libya. European allies, such as Italy, Germany, and Spain, have a more direct interest in North Africa. They want to avoid any turmoil that could launch a flow of refugees across the Mediterranean. The Arab League is studying the option, too, perhaps with the African Union.

And the armies of Egypt and Tunisia might also be enlisted to help Libya. Those countries are already coping with at least 140,000 people fleeing the country.

Congress and Americans are watching Libya closely, perhaps torn, as Obama seems to be, over what to do. Patience and prayer are certainly in order. So, too, is a wider public debate. “The stakes are high,” as Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Tuesday.

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