Shockingly, the west is actually once again contemplating a military intervention in a Muslim country.
The protracted conflict between rebels and the still resilient forces of Muammar Gaddafi, has provoked a furious debate about the merits and risks of establishing a no-fly zone. And, inconveniently, the divide isn't falling along the hawk/dove axis.
While all eyes are on the UN Security Council, which this week discussed but did not decide on no-fly action by press time, and the grassroots Avaaz campaigns for it online, it's becoming increasingly clear that progressive foreign policy analysts disagree about the efficacy of military intervention and the constraints needed if it is attempted.
For starters, it's not clear that everyone has the same concept of what enforcing such a zone would entail: is it just sky control? Or does it always entail an immediate bombing of the enemy's air defense installations?
Phyllis Bennis of the justice-oriented Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, DC, thinks any such effort will inevitably lead to the latter - and that any move to control Libyan airspace is a potential disaster. What is being proposed, she says, is a "fantasy no-fly zone."
In the real world, she says, a no-fly resolution would definitely entail the destruction of Libyan anti-aircraft systems on the ground. "If you don't, you risk having a plane shot down, and you have a pilot in Libyan government custody. Then you have special forces going in for a rescue - and then you are at war." The real world, she says, doesn't need another U.S. war in the Middle East.
"There's no question that the air attacks are happening. They are terrifying, and there have been casualties," but, says Bennis, some pro-government pilots are not attacking as they are ordered. "What we know is that the vast majority of casualties have come from ground assaults."
This is not an unarmed opposition, but a conflict in which the military is divided, and some soldiers and airmen, with their guns and planes, are fighting on the side of the rebels. "I don't think it's a matter of letting them just fight it out. What the U.N. has done so far has been the right thing: a strict weapons embargo, assets freeze and, crucially, invoking the International Criminal Court."
But UBC international law expert Michael Byers believes there's an opportunity to save Libyan lives though careful application of a no-fly prohibition if such a mission is mandated by a UN Security Council resolution. He urges Canada to contribute our underutilized air force to such an effort.
Still, the one-time NDP candidate is insistent that the West must avoid an Iraq-style intervention. Hence, the mandate and terms of the intervention have to be "properly constructed," with limits on both scope and timing and clear rules of engagement regarding self-defence.
"The Canadian planes [CF-18s]could fly from runways in Malta," he offers. "They are designed for midair refuelling and are relatively long-range [and therefore useful against] the anti?-aircraft [missiles] of the Libyan air force. They are technologically up to the task."
He admits that the situation is fraught with potential for calamity. "Obviously, we are dealing with a whole bunch of less-than-perfect solutions here," he says.
That's certainly the assessment of Robert Naiman, policy director of Washington's Just Foreign Policy, who argues in a recent piece that a no-fly zone has "little potential for good and much for harm."
Naiman, who could not be reached at press time, stresses the potential f0or civilian casualties in imposing a no-fly zone. If there is to be one, he writes, it should be used only to protect uncontested rebel territory and be maintained by an Arab military force.
Such a plan, he warns, should not be used to conquer Tripoli militarily when it's apparent that the rebels can't do this themselves. "If the political forces backing the armed opposition want to reunify the country, they will likely have to negotiate with the forces backing Gaddafi," he says.
Paul Rogers, a prof of peace studies at England's Bradford University best known for his columns in the online Open Democracy mag, agrees that the capital is a major problem. "I don't think the opposition has the strength to defeat Gaddafi in the greater Tripoli area, so there is a risk of quite a long conflict, I'm afraid," he says.
And then there are the negative optics of a no-fly zone, even with a UN stamp. Only the Americans have the expertise, with aircraft carriers (particularly the USS Enterprise) and planes ready to go in a few days, says Rogers. Malta, as a potential launch pad is "tricky because of the size of the airport and its primary commercial use,'' he adds. (This could put a damper on Canadian CF-18 participation.)
Even John Pike, director of the military news org Global Security, in Washington, has his doubts. While the sheer presence of a UN-authorized, U.S.-implemented no-fly zone might quiet matters down, "the reality is that the Libyan air force is not that big, not well trained, and its pilots aren't very skilful."
Pike wonders why Libya has become such a major interventionist issue for the West when the Shia minority in Bahrain and the people of the conflict-ridden Congo, for instance, continue to suffer. He fears the prospect of foreign nations getting sucked into a lengthy civil war between the western and eastern regions of Libya (originally separate entities known as Tripolitania and Cyrenaica), both of which are well armed.
It's a skepticism also expressed by Hicham Safieddine, a Lebanese-born journalist who's worked in Egypt and is now a PhD student at U of T in Middle East studies. Safieddine, who attends Libyan solidarity rallies, is uncomfortable with the notion of intervention unless Gaddafi embarks upon mass killings. For him, that has not yet happened.
"[A no-fly zone] will also give the U.S. and its allies a stake in the outcome of the revolution, which usually translates into economic, military, security and political control and exploitation of the country's resources," he says. The current focus on Libya represents "an attempt by Western governments, specifically the United States, to try to regain [legitimacy]" in the area.