Leaders flounder over Libyan no-fly zone

A rebel holds a portable air-defence system during clashes with pro-Gaddafi forces between Ras Lanuf and Bin Jawad, 9 March 2011
Image caption Rebel forces in Libya have been asking for a no-fly zone to be imposed

What, if anything, should be done to help the rebel forces in Libya?

Nobody can agree. The ongoing debate about a proposed no-fly zone to deny Col Muammar Gaddafi the use of his air force is a case in point.

Two countries - Britain and France - have been forcing the pace on the no-fly zone. But even they appear to have very different views as to what it is all about.

The British Foreign Secretary, William Hague, told the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Select Committee today that a no-fly zone was intended "to protect the civilian population".

It was not about intervening in the conflict to make a decisive change on the ground. Indeed, he noted that he had no desire to suggest that a UN resolution authorising such a zone "would change the unequal balance of military forces".

'Regime victory'

Go to the French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe's blog and quite a different rationale emerges.

Image caption Foreign ministers have been unable to agree to a stance on military intervention

"It's not enough to proclaim that Gaddafi must go," he says.

Mr Juppe concludes that the Col Gaddafi's air force is the decisive actor in this conflict and he asserts: "We must be able to neutralise his air force by targeted strikes."

If that is not military intervention, I do not know what is.

And here is the problem. Western diplomacy waded into this crisis with a clear sense that the skids were under Col Gaddafi.

All sorts of statements were made to speed him on his way. But in the event he is still there. His forces are on the offensive. And diplomatic and military dilemmas loom large.

What is needed is a clear-headed sense of what is possible.

Would, for example, a no-fly zone work?

Experts at the International Institute for Strategic Studies - the IISS - believe that the military advantage is now firmly with Col Gaddafi's forces.

"Regime victory is probable, though not inevitable," the IISS says.

Much could depend upon what the outside world does. So could a no-fly zone change the dynamics on the ground?

The IISS is cautious, noting that although Col Gaddafi has used fixed-wing aircraft in piece-meal attacks, the main damage inflicted on the rebel forces is being caused by artillery and tank fire.

This is the decisive factor in the fighting at the moment, not air power.

US leadership 'lacking'

The IISS points to the considerable confusion in western policy towards the current crisis, asking if there really is any fundamental political strategy for Libya and the region as a whole.

This question is even more relevant as diplomats struggle to respond to the Saudi intervention and crackdown in Bahrain.

Why, some might ask, did the West back President Hosni Mubarak's departure in Egypt and why is it so categorical in its desire to see the back of the Libyan leader, while calls for reform in Bahrain have been so polite and relatively restrained?

Image caption Rebels are still holding on to the eastern Libyan city of Benghazi, but Gaddafi's forces are advancing

For one thing, US leadership has been lacking. Different senior US administration figures have been speaking with very different accents as events have unfolded.

Think back to US President Barack Obama's Cairo speech early on in his presidency, extolling Washington's support for democrats and democracy; no wonder so many of his critics see his overall response to the "Arab spring" as disappointing.

But, in all fairness, these are uncharted political and diplomatic waters.

The process of change in a country like Egypt, for example, has only just begun. There cannot be a one-size fits all approach to the upheavals in so many different countries.

One undemocratic regime is not exactly the same as another, diplomats will tell you, and in pragmatic terms, that is a fair point.

Some have argued that the monarchies of the Gulf may be better able to absorb the pressures and respond with limited change than were secular authoritarian regimes like those in Egypt and Tunisia.

This theory is being tested daily in Bahrain.

But for all the criticisms of European or US diplomacy, one fact cannot be ignored.

This is not about Europe or the US. It is about the peoples of the Middle East and North Africa themselves.

They are the primary actors. And it may be that the most potent calls for a no-fly zone are those that come from the region itself.