We’re approaching the one month mark of the Libyan intervention. I think it should be clear at this point that it is unlikely to end soon. The Libyan rebels seem to lack the capacity to unseat Gaddafy even with NATO air power, and the reverse is true as well. Sustained military operations to defeat the uprising are unlikely to be successful in the face of NATO airpower. So, we have a stalemate. This was a wholly predictable outcome, not just within the realm of the possible, but the odds-on most likely outcome when the intervention began.
The current outcome only makes sense if you believe the alternative to intervention was some sort of mass killings scenario. And yes, Gaddafy did say some blood curdling stuff… but he says a lot of stuff. He’s a loon. But as a matter of empirics, mass killings just are not that common, and they almost never occur in the absence of either a well-developed genocidal ideology — Nazism, Hutu Power, Pol Pot’s agrarian communism, etc. — or powerful motives for strategic dispossession. But neither obtains in Libya. Indeed, as an oil-rich, sparsely populated country, with an ethnically and religiously homogeneous population, Libya is particularly unlikely to be the site of mass killings.
Now would an Gaddafy victory have been accompanied by reprisals and violence? Sure. But enough to trigger an obligation to intervene under “responsibility to protect”? I doubt it. And, of course, continued conflict is also a human rights problem. In the final analysis, it is almost certain that an extended conflict with result in significantly more human suffered than a quick Gaddafy victory would have caused.
I have long argued for short, decisive, and limited military operations. And here is another case where that is a real option. We could remove Gaddafy from power in a matter of days if we decided to do so. But I can’t recommend that course of action simply because I don’t think we can trust our government not to become embroiled in a decade-long occupation and reconstruction project.
So now we’re in a terrible situation. We’re committed to sustaining a stalemate, but we can’t risk breaking the stalemate ourselves because it would likely embroil us into an even more costly commitment. And the tragedy, of course, is that we could easily be rid of both Gaddafy and the commitment in a matter of weeks if we could simply take a hard-headed approach to the issue.