Read more of Slate's coverage of the Libyan protests.
In his TV speech today, Qaddafi declared that the demonstrations against him are the latest episodes of an imperialist plot that began with President Ronald Reagan's bombing campaign in the mid-1980s. It seems doubtful that many viewers believed him, but who knows?
Some might argue that such concerns are irrelevant. But it's worth noting that Operation Desert Storm, the 1991 Gulf War that pushed Saddam's troops out of Kuwait (and imposed the sanctions and no-fly zone that followed), succeeded in good part because it really was a coalition campaign that involved every Arab and Muslim nation in the region—and not just in name. Egypt, Syria, Saudi Arabia, even Libya sent whole armored divisions or air wings. They didn't affect much militarily, but they were tremendously important politically. Their presence ensured that no one would see the war, either during the fighting or after, as merely a Western power ploy, a colonial grab for oil.
Whatever actions Obama or anyone else might take in Libya, it's important to take similar precautions.
On one level, this may not seem so difficult. Qaddafi, who once touted himself as the dashing would-be leader of Pan-Arab adventurism, is now reviled and rejected publicly by the Arab League. (The only leaders rushing to embrace him in his darkest hour are anti-American socialists half a world away: Fidel Castro, Daniel Ortega, and Hugo Chavez, of Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela, respectively.)
On another level, though, it's unclear how far the Arab leaders might be willing to go down this road. They must be asking themselves: Would helping to get rid of this pest show their people, and the rest of the world, that they're not congenitally averse to popular revolts—or would it only intensify the domestic pressures on their own regimes to step down?
Even if Obama wanted to take unilateral action, his options are limited. Contrary to Qaddafi's ravings about plots by American agents, U.S. leverage in Libya is almost nonexistent: a barebones embassy, scant contact with the military, and economic aid of just a few million dollars a year, most of it to assist with Libya's disarmament program.
This could change. I have no idea (and doubt if anyone on the outside does) whether the United States, or any other Western nation, has established contact, much less opened lines of cooperation, with the Libyan military officers and diplomats who have defected from Qaddafi's regime. If so, they would have to be kept extremely secret, given Qaddafi's charge that the West is engineering the revolt.
If outsiders are needed to push him out of power, Great Britain and Russia may be the ones to take the lead, as they have far more extensive commercial interests in Libya.
Britain sold Libya more than $6 million in ammunition, including riot-control ammo, in the third quarter of 2010 alone—a chapter in shame that Prime Minister David Cameron (who recently flew to Egypt to strike a relationship with the nascent regime there) might wish to rectify.