As it looks to me on 28 March: As I understand it the US dilemma in Libya has been as follows.
Gaddafi (aka Qadhafi) was a ruthless dictator who had been in power for many years.
He used his power to control his country by retaining a virtual feudal system whereby his tribe and key friends and relatives held the power and most of the military control. The oil wealth of the country financed the regime. Previously treated as a pariah by Western nations he had in effect bought back a working relationship by offering oil concessions (particularly to Britain and the US) and agreed to take action against al Qaeda whose organisation was seeking to wrest power from him. Although Britain and the US had good reason to distrust Gaddafi, they distrusted al Qaeda more and although he was ruthless and unscrupulous in dealing with enemies, he was seen as offering some stability in an otherwise unstable area. When the current protests started initially the US and Britain were unwilling to step in for several reasons:
1. Polls of the area showed a majority dislike of Britain and particularly the US (eg Pew) and it was unlikely that a democratically elected government would continue to offer the current favourable trade terms to the US.
2. The US had already been dragged into two very expensive long running civil war situations in Iraq and Afghanistan and with a current recession at home, any military action was likely to add unreasonable pressures if another front was to open.
3. Although Gaddafi was likely to have the power to crush opposition, Gaddafi’s personal support was strong in some areas. This meant that any attempt to protect the civilians in rebel territory from Gaddafi’s forces would simply mean reversing the civilian targets making the Pro Gaddafi areas with their civilian population the alternative target.
4. Obama had come to power as President in the US by promising there would be no more US incursions into situations where the ethical justification was compromised and the outcome was uncertain. To act in Libya at the very least laid Obama open to the charge of compromising his stated principles.
At the same time there were mounting pressures to move against Gaddafi.
1. Gaddafi had become increasingly defiant and truculent and was now starting to threaten reprisals against anyone who protected the rebels (including the threat to shoot down civilian airliners) in the Mediterranean area.
2. As the rebellion gathered pace other territories in the vital oil producing areas of the Middle East were becoming increasingly unstable. The price of oil was beginning to sky-rocket in response causing a widespread criticism of Obama’s handling of the situation as a consequence. The oil in Libya was also at risk.
3. France in particular was offering to take control in the area. Had this succeeded there would no doubt have been a change in economic advantage for the other powers.
4. The general public in most of the Western nations were beginning to agitate about the ruthless response and apparent revenge directed to the civilian population.
5. The Arab nations could not allow Gaddafi to continue his confrontation with the rebels because this threatened the stability of the whole area. On the other hand because of the bond between the various Arab nations, for them to take military action against a fellow Arab nation would be to risk public backlash. Far better to have the main Western forces act on their behalf.
Obama was now in a dilemma. If he failed to act he would appear slow and inept in an apparent crisis. If he took the US into Libya he would be committing the US to a very uncertain and probably very expensive outcome. The proposed no-fly zone, while good in theory, would make it difficult to control matters on the ground. Since Russia and China both had designs on increasing their share of the oil in the area, they too were unwilling to help the US lead to a successful resolution which would strengthen the US position. While the chosen alternative which was to draw NATO into the peacekeeping role via the UN (SCR 1973) was achievable, although there was public support for this action in the key nations, and while it would be relatively easy to use the massive military power available to NATO against Gaddafi whose weaponry was for the most part antiquated by comparison, there was no guarantee that the final outcome would still be unacceptable. In any event if Gaddafi was to win it is now virtually impossible he would forgive and forget that the US led the initial attack on his forces.
Looking at the current position we can say with relative certainty that the US is temporarily off the hook, particularly since NATO has agreed to assume command. This in effect has neutralised the French bid to assume control in the area although there are still many assuming Obama’s response was too little and too late.
What is more worrying is that we are still a long way of discovering the final achieved position, and indeed it is hard to visualise a trouble free outcome. If the rebels (who are widely believed to have al Qaeda and Wahhabi support) do win, the prospects for the civilians in pro-Gaddafi territories look increasingly problematic. The long term oil trade prospects for the US depend on a quick victory for one side in Libya and a new found and as yet unrecognised interest in ensuring that there is minimal revenge sought in the aftermath.