That's a real, not rhetorical question. It has obvious answers, with very serious implications, and they worth looking at carefully. For many weeks, numerous voices have been calling for an international no-fly zone intervention in Libya, including here on the Ibishblog. While there was always significant support for the idea in parts of Western and Arab societies, there was also a great deal of resistance, particularly from certain governments. I've made my views clear already that the greatest opportunity both politically and strategically for a no-fly zone in Libya to maximize its benefits was in the immediate aftermath of Qaddafi's deranged first televised speech to the Libyan people after the revolt began. I'm not going over that territory again. The point is that international hesitation was based on numerous serious concerns that I have always acknowledged: how much impact could the no-fly zone have; what to do if a no-fly zone failed to help produce regime change; how to manage anticipated (although I always argued unlikely) negative fallout, especially in Libyan and Arab public opinion; what if a no-fly zone merely solidified a stalemate and led to a long-term de facto division of Libya; and, perhaps most influentially in the thinking of several key governments, what, exactly, would be being promoted by a no-fly zone in place of the Qaddafi regime? It's worth bearing in mind that the West has long considered that it can live with Qaddafi, even while holding its nose, and greatly fears the outcome of uncontrolled Arab change, especially in a situation like Libya in which it has extremely limited information, influence and options.
Therefore, the long hesitation before today's historic UN Security Council vote authorizing a no-fly zone and other forms of international intervention in Libya — an extraordinarily robust and vigorous international intervention citing humanitarian concerns (this may be a first in several important ways) — was based on some very serious questions that didn't have easy answers. I've always acknowledged them as serious and legitimate, while continuing to argue in favor of a no-fly zone for various political and strategic reasons I've explained at length elsewhere or on the Ibishblog. And none of them have been answered at all in the few days leading up to today's vote — every one of them is as valid as ever it has been!
So what changed? I think it's obvious: the Qaddafi regime appeared, in the past 48 hours, to perhaps be on the brink of a decisive victory, potentially pushing into and recapturing Benghazi, the rebel stronghold. If that happened, it would secure its grip on almost all of the country and probably be able to capture or wipe out most of the rebellion's troops and leaders. It is the prospect of this, and this only, that moved the international community so far and so quickly.
The West and the world had to consider what impact regionally and internationally a victorious Qaddafi regime would have had, and what role it was likely to play in the future. Is it plausible that it would return to the tense cooperation with the West and Arab states that existed since the rapprochement following the US invasion of Iraq? Could any responsible actors in the international community really live with the specter of a victorious, vengeful, bloodied, enraged, empowered and still oil-rich Qaddafi regime stalking the region and the globe with malice towards all? The answer clearly was no. The international community may have been halfhearted about intervening to support the rebellion, fearing what it might be creating and what kind of commitments it might be setting in place. But it could not afford to be blasé about the prospect of a straightforward and total Qaddafi victory. There is no way to argue that such a prospect would be simply a Libyan problem, given the history of Qaddafi's relations with Western and Arab states, and the copious bad blood that has already been shed politically and diplomatically in the course of the Libyan revolt even though any international intervention had yet to take place. In other words, the West and the international community was prepared to live with a long, drawnout, civil conflict between the Tripoli regime and the Benghazi-based rebels. But it wasn't willing to live with Libya returning to the uncontested rule of an enraged, dangerous and probably psychotic leader with a freshly-composed revenge agenda that undoubtedly reaches far beyond Libya, and probably far beyond the Middle East.
Some might argue that what I'm calling dithering based on serious, reasonable concerns was actually careful, painstaking diplomacy preparing the way for today's vote. I'm afraid not. No doubt the endorsement of the no-fly idea by Arab states — first the Gulf Cooperation Council and then the Arab League — helped to reassure Western governments that Arab hostility to the idea was not a significant, let alone dispositive, factor. I've argued in the past that solid majorities of public opinion in most of the Arab world were primed to welcome any such intervention with open arms in the immediate aftermath of Qaddafi's first speech. It's still the case that post Egypt-Tunisia euphoria and enthusiasm for rebellions against Arab tyrants, combined with Qaddafi's bloodcurdling rhetoric and evident brutality, might well ensure the no-fly zone a surprising (to some) measure of popularity among Arabs generally. Certainly, much of the Libyan population will be profoundly relieved and grateful, at least at the outset. But in spite of some Western perceptions, the Arab publics didn't need prepping to view such a mission in a positive light. On the contrary swift action would've been much more positively viewed and the hesitation has tarnished, at least to some extent, the decision taken in New York today. So it wasn't weeks of painstaking diplomacy with Arab states or Western governments that tipped the scales, but the sudden resurgence of the Qaddafi regime and its possible imminent victory that shook the international community out of its relative stupor and into action.
What this means is both simple and profound: it was always coming to this, and the long period of pointless hesitation must now be viewed as a significant and foolish mistake. Obviously everybody hoped that the rebels would just sweep the Qaddafi regime aside, but there are always serious doubts about whether that could happen unaided: hence the many voices raised in favor of a no-fly zone, targeted sanctions, international criminal investigations and so forth. It's a shameful thing to have to admit, but many Western and Arab governments, it would seem, would have been comfortable with a drawn out civil conflict but not with a government victory. Yet the lack of a no-fly zone was one of the most decisive factors in making such a victory not only plausible but likely. Stalemates don't last forever. Eventually either the rebels were going to win, in which case the no-fly zone would have helpfully placed the West in the role of midwife to a new Libya, or Qaddafi was going to win, in which case we have the scenario we have right now. So it seems that in the end there was no other alternative, given either plausible scenario. The big difference was between the West being perceived as playing an enthusiastic, proactive role in helping an Arab society throw off its vicious dictator versus being perceived as responding in a kind of panic to the strategically unacceptable specter of a resurgent, empowered Qaddafi regime threatening regional and international security and stability.
So the period of hesitation merely made a bad situation worse, and postponed the inevitable at considerable political and strategic cost to the West, and human and political cost to Libyans. And, among other things, swift action would have created much less of an obligation towards the Libyans over the long run, having appeared to be genuinely humanitarian. This intervention is plainly strategic and political, and therefore it carries with it kinds of obligations that the West was trying to avoid by not taking this decision, but counterintuitively ended up imposing on itself by not acting sooner. Almost everything that worried doubters about the downsides of no-fly zone have been intensified by the delay, including what everyone agrees is the unpalatable, indeed unacceptable, prospect of international boots on the ground.
The UNSC vote today was long overdue, and of course it should be welcomed. But there is a lesson to be learned here about the dangers of pointless political procrastination. Caution is important. In diplomacy, and above all, war, “first, do no harm” is generally a very good principle. But postponing the inevitable at the expense of predictable and obvious costs is not a serious application of this wisdom. In my last essay on this subject I dwelt on the greatly reduced benefits that a no-fly zone imposed now would have as compared to three or four weeks ago. I stand by every word of it, and I think that with every passing day over the past two weeks or more that damage only increased. I also continue to think that a no-fly zone is the best available policy, although it would have been much more effective in every possible sense if it had been done when it should have been done. Nonetheless, I'm relieved that the UN Security Council has finally taken the right vote, and I very much hope it's not too late to have at least some of the positive impact I had anticipated several weeks back, as opposed to merely staving off calamity. This is a step the international community was always going to have to take, barring an implausibly quick and decisive rebel victory. I hope all serious observers not only acknowledge that there was really, at this stage at least, no other choice, but also stop to consider the significant and avoidable costs of the delay of what was, now in hindsight more clearly than ever, inevitable.