Libya 2011; Iraq 1991; Hungary 1956?

There is a horrible sense that the military tide is turning in Colonel Gaddafi’s favour. So the West is faced with the prospect of watching an uprising that we have cheered on and encouraged, slowly crushed before our eyes. There is a nasty sense of deja vu. Isn’t this what happened in Iraq in 1991 – when the Shia in the South were encouraged to rise up against Saddam, and then slaughtered, while the West looked on? A couple of days ago, I heard a former French foreign minister comparing events in Libya to Hungary in 1956. “We encourage them to revolt. Then we do nothing when they are killed,” he said. His solution was a “no-fly-zone”

There is no doubt that pressure for the West to intevene will mount, the more you get headlines like the one in this morning’s FT – “Gaddafi bombs the hell out of city”.

In previous posts, I’ve noted that David Cameron has done a bit of a headless chicken act on Libya – one day talking about military intervention, the next backing off. But the Obama administration’s reaction has not been much more coherent, as this editorial from the New York Times lays out in excruciating detail. At one point the defence department seemed to be virtually ruling out a “no-fly zone”; then it was back on the table.

Meanwhile, the political heat is mounting. John McCain, whose instinct always seems to be to bomb first and ask questions later, says the US cannot sit by and “watch one of the two or three worst despots in the world slaughter innocent civilians.”

If Gaddafi prevails and Obama does nothing, the president will be portrayed as weak and indecisive – willing to see allies overthrown in Egypt, but unwilling to take on much nastier tyrants in Libya and Iran. Being thwarted by a failure to get a UN resolution on a no-fly-zone won’t be regarded as much of an excuse.

For a while both Obama and many Americans would feel better about themselves, if they intervene uniaterally or with a few Nato allies to stop the slaughter in Libya. But that feeling could quickly fade. What if shooting down some Libyan planes and bombing Gaddafi’s airfields didn’t work? Would the US then feel obliged to intervene with ground troops, to protect its credibility? And if that is deemed to be a step too far, does the West just back off  and say, “well, too bad, we did our best.” Mightn’t that be worse than doing nothing at all?