When a brutal dictatorship massacres its own people with bombs and machine guns while the eyes of the world are upon it, the U.S. and the international community cannot stand idly by as the atrocities unfold. This week's upheaval in Libya brought thousands of ordinary citizens into the streets of the capital and other cities demanding an end to Col. Moammar Gadhafi's bloody, 40-year career of misrule; the government's response was to mow them down by the hundreds.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Monday denounced the indiscriminate killing of demonstrators and called on Libya's military to show restraint. But words alone are unlikely to influence the Libyan tyrant now that he has his back to the wall; the Obama administration must go further. It should immediately declare its unequivocal support for democratic reform in Libya, then follow with action by doing everything it can to help the protesters there win their freedom and hold Mr. Gadhafi accountable for his crimes.
The uprising in Libya follows those of other pro-democracy movements sweeping the Arab world that have already resulted in the overthrow of repressive rulers in Tunisia and Egypt and threatened autocratic regimes in Yemen, Bahrain, Algeria and Morocco. While the ultimate outcome of those developments remains in doubt, it seems clear the Libyan protests have reached a point from which there is no turning back.
With his support among the Libyan military apparently in doubt — news reports quoting refugees fleeing the country suggest Mr. Gadhafi has had to call on foreign mercenaries to shore up his regime after some army units defected to the opposition — and his diplomats in foreign capitals resigning in protest over the human rights violations committed in their government's name, the Libyan strongman must feel the ground shifting beneath him. There are even unconfirmed reports that some top generals have been arrested for sympathizing with the protestors. Yet Mr. Gadhafi remains defiant, vowing to fight to the last man and the last bullet.
Meanwhile the protesters, knowing they almost certainly will be slaughtered if their movement fails, are redoubling their efforts to wrest the country from government control. By Tuesday, they claimed to have driven government forces out of Bengazi, the country's second-largest city, and other reports indicated they were still battling police and foreign fighters for control of Tripoli, the capital. It's impossible to know exactly what is going on there because foreign journalists have been barred from entering the country.
The American government may have less influence over Mr. Gadhafi than it had over Egypt's and Tunisia's leaders, but that doesn't mean there is nothing it can do to speed the dictator's departure from the scene. The Obama administration could send a powerful signal by declaring a no-fly zone over Libya to prevent Mr. Gadhafi's fighter jets and attack helicopters from assaulting demonstrators from the skies. Grounding the Libyan air force, coupled with a strongly worded resolution from the U.N. Security Council branding Mr. Gadhafi a war criminal, could tip the scales against the regime just enough to allow the protesters to topple it. Mr. Gadhafi has never been a friend to the United States, and no tears need be shed over his downfall.
For his part, Mr. Gadhafi doubtless is still hoping to avoid the fate of the Tunisian and Egyptian leaders who were brought down by popular discontent after decades of authoritarian rule that made them the most hated figures in their countries. But it's equally obvious that Mr. Gadhafi is determined to make all the wrong choices by violently resisting his people's call to step down. Given his refusal to face the reality that his days in power are numbered, there's no excuse for the U.S. and its allies not to act as swiftly and aggressively as possible to hasten the end of his regime.