Timothy Garton Ash discusses whether to intervene, or not, in Libya.
To intervene or not to intervene? That is the question. The readiness of the delusional dictator Muammar Gaddafi to kill the Libyans who he says all "love" him – but who have unusual ways of showing it – returns us to a pivotal argument of our time.
I defy anyone to watch Gaddafi's planes attacking besieged towns and not accept that there is at least a legitimate question whether outside powers should intervene in some way to prevent him killing more of his own people. Some Libyans obviously think so too. In a piece on the Guardian website, a blogger from Tripoli, writing under the pseudonym Muhammad min Libya, argues eloquently against "any military intervention on the ground by any foreign force", but comes out in favour of a no-fly zone. The fact that western countries like Britain and Italy were until very recently sucking up to Gaddafi in the most craven fashion, and selling him weapons that he can now turn against his own people, makes it more, not less, vital to pose this question.
The whole debate about so-called "liberal interventionism" is bedevilled by two big distortions. First, intervention is usually reduced to armed intervention. That ignores a panoply of ways in which states can intervene in the internal affairs of other states. Even to offer humanitarian aid to the victims of what is beginning to look like a civil war in Libya is, in some important sense, to intervene.