Historical lessons of what to do and what not to are of limited value when it comes to how to confront Libya's divisions and Col Qaddafi's growing penchant for violence
Libya's madness requires a patient and logical reply
Colonel Muammar Qaddafi has used mercenaries to break up peaceful protests against his government. The Libyan leader is now using helicopter gunships and jets to attack opposition groups. Thousands of civilians are caught in the crossfire.
Demands that someone, somewhere, do something are understandable. Acting upon these impulses, however, serves as a poor substitute for careful deliberation of all the options available.
Discussion of military options is difficult to avoid now that Col Qaddafi appears willing - even eager - to use any means necessary to hold on to power. Libya is on the brink civil war; foreign forces have helped to bring countries back from that precipice before. The landing of 100 US Marines in Monrovia, for instance, and the presence of a warship off its coast, was enough to quell violence in Liberia in 2003. Eight years earlier, a three-month bombing campaign by the US and its Nato allies ended the civil war and ethnic cleansing in Bosnia, though not before 200,000 were killed.
These historical examples may have limited relevance for Libya, fraught with so many tribal divisions and few institutions. Col Qaddafi had history lessons of his own in mind to explain how he would respond to military intervention: by distributing arms "to two or three million" to "turn Libya into another Vietnam".
The powers of a modern military are considerable, but so too are the limits of those powers. The US president Barack Obama deserves credit for appearing to understand this as he considers what to do next in Libya. An effort to police Libya's skies and prevent Col Qaddafi from attacking by air may be the most feasible military option. No-fly zones have worked before; they protected the Kurds in northern Iraq from attacks by Saddam Hussein's forces for more than a decade.
Past successes, of course, don't address whether a no-fly zone would work in Libya, or whether it could win international support. China and Russia, are likely to prevent the UN's endorsement with their votes on the UN Security Council. Turkey and France are likely to object to a Nato-wide effort, leaving the UK and the US to do the heavy lifting. Any Anglo-American effort in Libya, even a no-fly zone, comes with its own dangerous baggage. Though there would be few similarities, an effort to subdue an Arab leader of an oil rich state would invite comparisons to the 2003 Iraq invasion. Col Qaddafi has used anti-western rhetoric to shield himself from criticism for 40 years and he may relish the chance to transform a rebellion against his leadership into his final battle against the West.
One of the few things that is crystal clear about Libya is that a change of leadership will be far messier than in Egypt or Tunisia. Col Qaddafi has proven capable of incredible violence, and remarkable resilience. The international community must show even greater resolve as it weighs what can be done now, and to support Libya's rebirth, whenever this tragic chapter in its history comes to a close.