Libya: Think twice and do nothing

There’s an old cliché used by diplomats about their own craft: Think twice before saying nothing. I am reminded of this in the context of Libya, where it looks increasingly unlikely that there will be international military action against Col. Moammar Gadhafi. But in the meantime the hand-wringing goes on.

There has never been any love lost between the mercurial Gadhafi and the Arab League, which raised the pressure over the weekend with a call to the U.N. to enforce a “no-fly zone.” But the 22-nation Arab League added a serious caveat opposing foreign interference in the affairs of Libya. An Arab version, perhaps, of “Yes we can, but … ”

So the buck has now been passed back to the United Nations, where there is no consensus on a “no-fly” zone. If it were established, once things start going wrong, you can be sure the Americans would be blamed. But with events now moving at a dizzying pace, and with Gadhafi’s forces moving on the rebel-held eastern city of Benghazi, a “no-fly” zone could be too little, too late.

In an op-ed in yesterday’s Washington Post, Gen. Wesley Clark, benefiting from first-hand experience of Western intervention as the former commander of the Kosovo war, set out a clear list of principles and concluded that in Libya, there is “no clear basis for action.”

Elsewhere, however, the Arabs have been taking things into their own hands. Today the Gulf Cooperation Council sent troops into Bahrain at the request of the beleaguered government. This could easily turn into a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran, with Bahrain home to a discontented Shia majority with real grievances. Or rather, a proxy war between the U.S. and Iran, with Bahrain hosting the U.S. Fifth Fleet and therefore being a strategically vital ally of Washington.

This is messy and it’s going to get messier. Right now, the best thing for America to do is to watch and wait. In other words, think twice and do nothing. The last thing President Obama needs is to join another war in a Muslim country without an exit strategy.