To intervene or not to intervene? That is the question. The readiness of delusional dictator Moammar Gadhafi to kill the Libyans who he says all "love" him returns us to a pivotal argument of our time.
I defy anyone to watch Colonel Gadhafi's planes attacking besieged towns and not accept there's at least a legitimate question whether outside powers should intervene in some way. Some Libyans think so, too. In a recent piece on The Guardian website, "Muhammad min Libya," a blogger from Tripoli, argues eloquently against "any military intervention on the ground by any foreign force" but favours a no-fly zone. The fact that Western countries such as Britain and Italy were, until very recently, sucking up to Col. Gadhafi and selling him weapons he can use against his own people makes it more vital to pose this question.
The whole debate about "liberal interventionism" is bedevilled by two big distortions. First, intervention is usually reduced to armed intervention. That ignores a panoply of other ways in which states can intervene in the internal affairs of other states. Even to offer humanitarian aid to the victims of what's beginning to look like a civil war in Libya is, in some sense, to intervene. There's then a range of forms of intervention, from economic carrots and sticks, through diplomatic pressure, all the way to overt or covert assistance to independent media and opposition groups, training in non-violent action and so on. Many of the most genuinely liberal forms of intervention - those that help people to help themselves to be free - are to be found along this spectrum, but well short of armed force.
The other massive distortion in the debate about "liberal interventionism" is that the military actions now most closely associated with the term (Afghanistan, Iraq) were not really liberal at all. Some of the justifications used liberal arguments, and some liberals supported these actions, but the core of the case was not liberal, in the way that the West's military interventions in Bosnia (far too late), Sierra Leone and Kosovo genuinely were.
Motives are always mixed, but the main reason Western forces invaded Afghanistan was because al-Qaeda, then based in Afghanistan, had attacked the United States. The mission there soon became mixed with that of building a society in which, for example, women wouldn't be treated as hooded slaves and chattels - a good liberal purpose from which the West is now shamefacedly retreating. But it's a safe bet George Bush hadn't spared many thoughts for the oppressed women of Afghanistan before 9/11.
Iraq is more complicated. Motives such as frustration at the failure to catch Osama bin Laden, the desire to use U.S. military superiority to overwhelming effect ("shock and awe") and interest in Iraqi oil were mixed with a neo-con agenda of spreading democracy. Even the bogus "weapons of mass destruction" argument was connected to earlier cases of "liberal intervention," inasmuch as it was suggested that a Saddam Hussein with nuclear, chemical and biological weapons could be another Slobodan Milosevic.
Only a fool would fail to acknowledge that the invasion of Iraq gave "liberal interventionism" a bad name. No one contributed more to this than Tony Blair. In fact, Mr. Blair looks especially bad today. He not only hijacked the arguments of "liberal interventionism" to justify invading Iraq, but went on to personally embrace Col. Gadhafi, the Saddam of North Africa.
Yet, alongside these perversions of "liberal interventionism," a genuinely liberal version has continued to develop. Building on the post-1945 tradition of human-rights promotion and international humanitarian law, and working with and through the United Nations, this has brought us the International Criminal Court and the "responsibility to protect" doctrine. To be sure, it's rank hypocrisy for the U.S., Russia and China to threaten Col. Gadhafi with an ICC whose authority they don't themselves accept. But that's an argument for them to join the ICC, not for that court to be abolished. If the threat of prosecution persuades Col. Gadhafi's henchmen to defect, it must be a good thing.
And do we not, after all, have some responsibility to protect the people who have risen against him, if only in the form of a no-fly zone, especially if this is to defend them against weapons we sold to their oppressor?
A decade ago, an international commission that elaborated on the idea of "responsibility to protect" spelled out six criteria for deciding whether military action is justified: right authority, just cause, right intention, last resort, proportional means and reasonable prospects. Bitter experience, from Kosovo to Afghanistan, has taught us that "reasonable prospects" (i.e., of success) may be the most difficult to judge and achieve.
Applying these criteria, I remain unconvinced that a no-fly zone over Libya is justified. If it turns out that Col. Gadhafi still has a secret stock of chemical weapons and can drop them from the sky, this judgment could change overnight. But we haven't yet exhausted all other avenues, including trying to pry Col. Gadhafi's cronies away from him by fair means and foul. A no-fly zone would be very difficult to enforce, and might not have anything more than a marginal impact on the ground.
Above all, any form of armed intervention by the West - and the U.S. military says an effective no-fly zone would require initial bombing of Libyan radar and anti-aircraft facilities - would spoil the greatest pristine glory of these events, which is that they're all about brave men and women liberating themselves.
Timothy Garton Ash is a professor of European studies at Oxford University and a senior fellow at Stanford's Hoover Institution.