With Muammar al-Qaddafi now closing in on a final campaign to defeat the rebels opposing his regime, the world's attention has centered on what the United States and others should do -- or even can do -- to aid those who are trying to bring down the Qaddafi government. Some observers caution that any sort of intervention would be unwise, if not dangerous. They warn that arming the Libyan rebels today could empower the next Osama bin Laden, who could one day use Western-supplied arms and training against his benefactors. Others cite the disastrous U.S.-led intervention in Somalia in the early 1990s and the ongoing difficulties of fostering civil society in Afghanistan. Even imposing a no-fly zone over Libya could require, as U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has cautioned, destroying Qaddafi's air defenses, an act of military aggression against a sovereign state that is not at war with the United States. And such actions could call to mind the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, an event that still has negative resonance in much of the Arab and Muslim world, to say the least.

But of all the possible historical analogies for the dilemma facing the United States, the most useful one may be the case of Bosnia from 1993 to 1995. At that time, I was U.S. ambassador to NATO. I negotiated eight different decisions to use NATO airpower, but most of these came to naught: only the last time -- after the massacre at Srebrenica -- did NATO carry out decisive air strikes. Several NATO members, notably the United Kingdom, resisted NATO's use of force for more than two years. They worried about "proportionality," "even-handedness," the precedent of acting beyond NATO's formal area of commitment, and assuming responsibility for Bosnia's future.

What finally caused NATO to act was not the mounting human toll alone but also the realization that unless NATO stopped the worst killing on Europe's doorstep since World War II, neither it nor the European Union would have the credibility needed to undertake other tasks for the future of European security and cooperation. The same calculus was true for Kosovo three years later.

Also, Bosnia and Kosovo are in the close backyard of both NATO and the European Union. The same could be said about Libya: refugees from the current conflict would spill over into Europe, just as Bosnians, Kosovars, and others from the former Yugoslavia did in the 1990s.

What happened in Bosnia (and, later, in Kosovo) also demonstrated the importance of formal legitimacy in international law for military action. Such legitimacy is generally understood to come from a resolution of the UN Security Council under Chapter VII, the enforcement provisions of the UN Charter. Although the United States argues that NATO can act without such outside authority, almost all of NATO's European members insist upon it. NATO acted militarily in Bosnia with the full blessing of the United Nations, which gave it authority to establish a no-fly zone over Bosnia and use airpower to protect so-called safe areas. The United States and its coalition partners had similar legal authority in the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 and during the Persian Gulf War of 1991. By contrast, there is still debate over whether UN Security Council resolutions justified the invasion of Iraq in 2003. And there was no such blessing for the NATO-run air campaign against Serbia in 1999 to stop the ethnic cleansing of Kosovo. For the Western powers, the dilemma arises when they want to act but there is no UN Security Council resolution to provide formal legitimacy.  

Much as Russia and China opposed the use of NATO airpower in Kosovo, they appear ready to veto any UN resolution calling for the imposition of a no-fly zone over Libya today. They would almost certainly oppose an even more vigorous application of military power if that proved necessary to stop Qaddafi from crushing the Libyan opposition. In Bosnia, the no-fly zone also proved insufficient, and it became necessary to carry out air attacks on Serbia-backed forces.

Three years after the fighting stopped in Bosnia, Serbia's leader, Slobodan Milosevic, expelled as many as one million Kosovars. By early 1999, NATO members came to the unanimous conclusion that this could not be tolerated. As in Bosnia, if the West did not act, then both NATO and the European Union would appear feckless and thus diminished as security institutions with a valid role in the post-Cold War era. Caught between the need to take military action and the lack of a UN mandate, the NATO allies agreed among themselves that each member could decide for itself the legal basis for air strikes. All did so -- even Greece, despite its close relations with Orthodox Serbia. At the same time, most of the allies vowed that they would never again act without formal UN sanction. (This was one reason so much of Europe opposed the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003.)

Nevertheless, if NATO wanted to impose a no-fly zone over Libya, the act would not be totally illegitimate. Although Beijing's and Moscow's recalcitrance means that the UN Security Council is not likely to act, the next best source of legitimacy in the current situation has spoken: the Arab League. Its support for a no-fly zone has been buttressed by similar calls from two other institutions that also have political standing within the Arab world: the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). In fact, last week the GCC went so far as to call the Qaddafi regime "illegitimate." This is a remarkable turn of events, given that all three organizations have members that are deeply concerned that the current unrest in the Arab world could spread to their own countries and, in some cases, already has. Such approval would be proof against any future claims by Arab states or other parties, such as al Qaeda, that acting against Qaddafi was a renewal of Western colonialism.

Yet what if a no-fly zone proved less than effective? Are NATO countries ready to step up military intervention to secure Qaddafi's defeat? In both Bosnia and Kosovo, Milosevic sued for peace before NATO had to face that choice. But since Qaddafi is fighting for his survival and has along history of brutality, Washington and Brussels must be aware that compromise with him is almost certainly impossible. The question, then, is whether stopping the fighting -- which could also require forcibly removing Qaddafi -- is worth the price of deep military engagement and responsibility for Libya's postwar future.

U.S. President Barack Obama seems to have made his decision, saying that "It is in the interest of the United States, and more importantly, in the interest of the Libyan people for Mr. Qaddafi to leave." (This is the logical conclusion of his commitment to put the United States "on the right side of history.") If the United States is indeed resolute in achieving that goal, the rest, then, is a question of tactics.

A no-fly zone can be imposed in a matter of hours, likely with low military risk, as NATO demonstrated over Bosnia in the mid-1990s and as a coalition did over Iraq after 1991. As Gates argued, this might also require suppressing Libyan air defenses -- but that is also a relatively straightforward military proposition.  

In sum, the course is clear. Washington should push for the rapid institution of a no-fly zone against the Qaddafi regime. This no-fly zone could be undertaken by NATO, the European Union, or by a "coalition of the willing" that includes the United States, France, the United Kingdom, and a few others. This could prove necessary if, despite the backing of the Arab League, the GCC, and the OIC, some NATO allies still do not want to act. Both Turkey and Germany remain reluctant -- Ankara because of the precedent of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and Berlin out of its historic reluctance to use force. They may have some silent partners among other NATO allies.

At the same time, the West should begin arming the rebels and trying to peel off Qaddafi supporters, by publicly declaring that those who desert Qaddafi now will not be excluded from roles in Libya's post-Qaddafi future. U.S. and European military planners should also prepare for more robust military action, including air strikes, if that becomes necessary to depose Qaddafi and stop the fighting. Meanwhile, the European Union should take the lead in planning for Libya's post-Qaddafi era (as well as in adjacent Egypt and Tunisia). It is now time for Europe to demonstrate whether it is serious about its attempts to forge a common foreign and security policy: the region is on its doorstep, refugees are most likely to flow north, and the EU members have both the resources and experience to make an impact. Libyans will need the help of the West not just in getting rid of Qaddafi but also in building their lives after him.

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For further expert analysis of the uprisings across the Arab world, please check out Foreign Affairs/CFR new ebook, The New Arab Revolt: What Happened, What It Means, and What Comes Next.

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  • ROBERT E. HUNTER is a Senior Adviser at the RAND Corporation. He was U.S. Ambassador to NATO and a Director of Middle East and North African Affairs on the National Security Council.
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