It's a no-brainer that President Barack Obama should do something to help the Libyan protesters bring down the monstrous regime of Moammar Gadhafi. The tough question is what.
What actions would help, what actions might hurt and, perhaps most important, what actions can be effectively sustained? Gadhafi, after all, has hung on to power for 42 years; he might not tumble with one quick push, and he is impervious to shame.
Sen. John Kerry, the Massachusetts Democrat who has been acting like a secretary-of-state-in-waiting for a while now, proposed a few tangible actions. Foreign oil companies in Libya should suspend operations until the violence stops; U.S. sanctions, which George W. Bush dropped when Gadhafi dismantled his nuclear program, should be resumed; Libya's military officers should be warned that, if they keep shooting and strafing their citizens, they'll be prosecuted for war crimes after Gadhafi falls; and, meanwhile, the United Nations should remove Libya from its seat on the Human Rights Council (a shameful joke to begin with).
These are all excellent ideas, which the proper authorities and CEOs could and should make good on with a finger snap. But what about more forceful measures?
Some commentators have advocated imposing a "no-fly zone" over Libya, to prevent Gadhafi's pilots from continuing to bomb and strafe demonstrators, as several eyewitnesses have reported they've done.
Presumably this zone would be enforced by U.S. or NATO combat planes. It's a feasible idea. The cease-fire at the end of the 1991 Gulf War imposed a no-fly zone over Iraq, and it was maintained for the entire 12 years until Saddam Hussein's ouster — through, and despite, many Iraqi attempts (all unsuccessful) to shoot down the planes.
But if any leaders sent air power over Libya, they would first have to calculate how far they'd be willing to go. Would they bomb Libya's airfields? If Gadhafi stopped strafing the crowds and sent tanks against them instead, would they bomb the tanks? And if that didn't halt the oppression, would they send in ground troops? (By any measure, this last step would probably be a very bad idea.)
Whatever actions Obama or anyone else might take in Libya, it's important to work with Arab and Muslim nations. But even if Obama wanted to take unilateral action, his options are limited. Contrary to Gadhafi's ravings about plots by American agents, U.S. leverage in Libya is almost nonexistent: a bare-bones embassy, scant contact with the military, and economic aid of just a few million dollars a year, most of it to assist with Libya's disarmament program.
If outsiders are needed to push him out of power, Britain and Russia may be the ones to take the lead, as they have far more extensive commercial interests in Libya.
Britain sold Libya more than $6 million in ammunition, including riot-control ammo, in the third quarter of 2010 alone — a chapter in shame that Prime Minister David Cameron (who recently flew to Egypt to strike a relationship with the nascent regime there) might wish to rectify.
More tangibly, in 2007, BP signed a $900 million deal with Libya to dig 17 exploratory wells across an area 10 times the size of BP's quite extensive operations in the Gulf of Mexico.
Just a year ago, Russia signed a deal to sell $1.8 billion in arms to Libya — this on top of multibillion-dollar contracts, signed in 2008, to build a railway line and assist in energy production.
BP and the Russian government announced Monday that they were taking all their workers out of the country — a move that they, and perhaps some interested parties in Libya, would like to see reversed in the near future.
In other words, there are many forces out there, private and public, with mutual and overlapping interests in seeing Gadhafi go soon.
Let's hope that, after Gadhafi falls, whatever we may or may not be doing now, Congress will get over its customary suspicion of foreign aid and pony up billions of dollars — and not just for Libya. It costs money to help nurture the civil institutions without which popular protests degenerate into anarchy or boomerang into dictatorship. But it's worth more to national security than any number of billions of dollars spent on nuclear submarines or aircraft carriers.
Libya in the time of Gadhafi's twilight poses one of those rare opportunities when America's interests and ideals really do coincide. It would be a shame to let it pass by.
Fred Kaplan is Slate's "War Stories" columnist and a Schwartz Senior Fellow at the New America Foundation. His latest book, 1959: The Year Everything Changed, is now out in paperback. © 2011 Slate