It is time to get real about Libya. All the huffing and puffing of Western leaders has yet to bring Gaddafi’s house crashing down. Instead, European leaders must think about what realistic outcomes they might be able to help achieve.  

It is time to get real about Libya. All the huffing and puffing of Western leaders has yet to bring Gaddafi’s house crashing down. On the contrary, the most likely prognosis today looks to be defeat for the revolutionaries, with or without a blood-bath in Benghazi.

The outside world – and Europe in particular – should not stand by and let this happen. It would be craven; it would look craven; and it would invite a triumphant Gaddafi’s revenge. So two questions arise: what to do; and with what outcome in view. The two are of linked because – witness the huffing and puffing to date – it is no use willing the end if you will not also will the means. Thus far, most attention has been paid to means – to no fly, or not to no fly. Time now to address the question ‘To secure what –realistic – outcome?’

By now, we have all worked out that Libya is not Tunisia, or Egypt. This is not a straightforward trial of wills between democrats and dictators. The regional and tribal dimensions count for much in Libya; not all the Easterners are white hats, nor – or it seems a reasonable bet – all the Westerners black ones. In other words, the failure of the regime’s support to collapse seems a fair indication that, whilst many in Tripoli would no doubt be content to see the back of the Brother Leader, many fewer would be content to see that achieved by the triumph of Benghazi. The best outcome that looks plausible today, therefore, is a compromise: a new political settlement which gives more weight and autonomy to the eastern part of the country, and a less oppressive form of government for all Libyans to live under. The removal of Gaddafi  is implied by such a scenario; but will come about, like all other aspects of an internal settlement, only through negotiations between the Libyans themselves. Those who retort ‘too much blood spilled’ should consider the power-sharing deal in Zimbabwe – less than ideal, indeed shabby, but better than anything else plausibly attainable for now.

But such internal negotiations will not of course begin while one side or other – first the revolutionaries, now the regime – believes it can win outright on the battlefield. With the Easterners being rolled back, and the Arab League now calling for intervention, the imposition of a no-fly zone is now urgent – and should be coupled with a call, as already proposed by the International Crisis Group, for an immediate ceasefire and a process of negotiation. Beyond that, those European states ready to get out ahead of the consensus should start talking about their determination to ‘do whatever it takes to avoid a blood-bath in Benghazi’ – and should prepare the options, including putting forces on the ground.

 ‘Save Benghazi’ is an achievable political aim for limited near-term military action, with a political flavour to which even the delicate Herr Westerwelle would surely find it hard to object. ‘Topple Gaddafi’ by military means would be a wholly different order of undertaking. So ends and how you frame them matter - and it is wise to attempt only what you are prepared to carry through. The immediate priorities should therefore be to stabilise a deteriorating situation; and to provide time and space for a Libyan/Libyan settlement in which there will hopefully be no place for the Colonel.

Read more on: Human Rights, The Middle East and North Africa

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. This commentary, like all publications of the European Council on Foreign Relations, represents only the views of its authors.