The battle for Tripoli

When the Pasha of Tripoli authorized Barbary pirates to hold ships and crews of the infant United States for ransom in the early nineteenth century, President Thomas Jefferson responded by ordering the U.S. Navy to shell his capital, then he sent in the Marines. However, that may not be the wisest course for the U.S. regarding the current situation in Libya, where the aging dictator Moammar Gadhafi is locked in a desperate bid to retain power in the face of an armed popular uprising.

Mr. Gadhafi has never been a friend to the U.S., and American officials would be glad to see him gone. But the risks of a misstep in the use of direct military force to hasten the dictator's departure are too great for the U.S. to enter lightly into a conflict that could have unpredictable consequences for the entire region and damage America's reputation in the Arab world for years to come.

The Libyan protesters say their goal is to bring democracy to the country that has endured 40 years of despotic rule by Mr. Gadhafi and his henchmen. But unlike their counterparts in Tunisia and Egypt, where largely peaceful mass demonstrations succeeded in deposing long-time autocratic rulers, the unarmed Libyan protesters were met with massive violence by the government almost from the start. In the first few days of fighting, they displayed incredible courage by braving bullets and bombs to press their demands while armed only with sticks and stones themselves.

Despite the government's crushing response, the movement managed to arm and organize itself with captured weapons and with help of defecting army units that decided they too had had enough. Since taking control of large swaths of the country, including the major eastern coastal city of Benghazi, the rebels have fended off repeated government counterattacks and in some places even enlarged the territory they control. At the moment they seem to have the momentum, but it's still unclear whether they can hold on to their gains or amass the forces needed for a final assault on Mr. Gadhafi's stronghold in Tripoli.

In this rapidly developing situation, the Obama administration needs to proceed cautiously in its response to calls from some U.S. lawmakers for direct American military aid to the rebels. There's no question that Mr. Gadhafi's regime has committed despicable crimes and killed hundreds, possibly thousands, of its own citizens in the weeks since the rebellion began, or that thousands more may be killed if the fighting continues. The U.N. Security Council and the European Union have both authorized war crimes investigations against the dictator, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has said all options, including military force, are on the table if Mr. Gadhafi refuses to step down.

But in practical terms there may be little the U.S. can do directly to influence events there. Defense Secretary Robert Gates issued a pointed warning this week that the U.S. lacks the resources to wage a third ground war on top of the two it is currently fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. The U.S. and its European allies would be hard put just to impose a no-fly zone over Libya to prevent Mr. Gadhafi from using his air force to attack rebel-held areas outside Tripoli or ferry in foreign mercenary reinforcements. Presently, there's no U.S. carrier in the region, and in any case the U.N. Security Council would probably have to sign off on the operation, something Russia and China are likely to oppose.

Like the ongoing revolutions throughout the Middle East, the situation in Libya poses a delicate diplomatic challenge for the United States. We must balance our concern for the obvious and growing humanitarian crisis there as thousands of Libyans flee the country for temporary refugee camps in neighboring Egypt and Tunisia with the military and strategic risks of becoming too heavily involved in a conflict that may well be drifting toward a protracted civil war. We should respond generously with humanitarian aid and offers to help rebuild the country if the rebels succeed. But getting in the middle of another shooting war whose outcome remains unclear could well just compound or problems.

We also have to be mindful of the likelihood that our direct involvement might only lead to a backlash — Yemen's president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, has begun blaming the United States and Israel for the uprisings in his country and elsewhere, and his statement came at the same time as a prominent cleric called for the establishment of an Islamic state there. The last thing the U.S. needs is to be painted as the secret hand manipulating events in the Muslim world from behind the scenes against its people's wishes. That's a movie we've seen before, in Tehran, and it's not one we want to repeat.

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