The situation is now critical in Libya. The Libyan army is ordering residents of Benghazi to leave the city, in order to "cleanse your city from armed gangs." The International Red Cross has withdrawn its staff from Benghazi and the DC policy community is taking the threat very seriously.
The complexity of this issue for policymakers is enormous. Lives in Libya and throughout the Middle East are in the balance, as is the future of US engagement in the Middle East, its relationship with the international community. This policy puzzle has three fundamental layers:
In planning a US reaction, there are five primary US objectives to keep in mind, from short-term to long-term:
a) Prevention of humanitarian crisis in Libya and copycat crackdowns in the region.
b) Mitigating damage to US public image in the Middle East and International Community
a) Libyan and regional political stability
b) Libyan and regional economic stability
c) Promotion of liberal values in Libya and the region
Crafting a policy which advances all five objectives is the policy equivalent of trying to win five simultaneous chess games in which you are your own opponent for one or two of them. Triaging the US public image will rely on the US not being perceived as interventionist. Yet intervention is required in some form or another to advance all the other objectives. Promoting stability requires not exacerbating fighting by rebels which may open a window to promoting liberal values, and may also create a humanitarian crisis.
Adding in capabilities complicates the puzzle further. There is a good chance the UN security council may not pass a resolution supporting the creation of a no-fly zone in time for it to make any difference, and it's unclear that a no-fly zone would be effective at this point anyway. Unilateral intervention by the US is completely off the table according to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and this is a wise choice. However, it means that any US effort to advance its objectives will occur through the use of third party proxies. There is likely some kind of covert US presence in Libya, but its ability to single-handedly regain control over the momentum of battle on behalf of the rebels is questionable given the rebels' critical posture at the moment.
3. Possible Endstates
The final complication is to consider desired endstates. What would a situation that meets the five objectives actually look like on the ground? Would rebels be in control, or Gaddafi, or both? Would Gaddafi agree to some kind of bargain, or would he reach some kind of stalemate? Would the international community recognize Gaddafi, or refuse to do so? Thinking about what goals the US should advance is one thing, but thinking about what endstate the US should move towards is quite another. President Obama has clearly stated that Gaddafi needs to go. It is increasingly unclear that will occur. Getting to an acceptable endstate may therefore mean continuing the tap dance around US response to the uprisings in the Middle East.
The Way Forward?
Given that the most imminent threat is of mass killings of civilians, deterring Gaddafi from this goal should be the immediate priority. After that, it may come down to signaling an unspoken agreement about conditions under which Gaddafi should stay in power. The US does not have the advantage in this situation, but working with the international community will be a critical asset to mitigating harm to Libyan civilians and the people of the Middle East.