|NATO is monitoring the situation in Libya, but what are its options? [GALLO/GETTY]
As NATO monitors the situation in Libya and considers its military and other options there, Marwan Bishara discusses the stakes and state of play for the Western military alliance.
NATO defence ministers met on Thursday but did not reach a clear position on Libya. You spoke to Anders Fogh Rasmussen, the secretary-general of the alliance, what is the mood like?
The secretary-general has gone out of his way to be cautious and uncommitted. NATO is divided among the likes of the UK, which seeks immediate action, and the likes of Italy, which is hesitant about any NATO involvement that might further complicate its relationship with Libya. There are also divisions between, for example, Turkey and the US over the nature and aims of any NATO role.
However, there is an implicit agreement that any NATO action should not go beyond a No-Fly Zone (NFZ) for the time being and that it must be conditioned on three factors: A new UN Security Council (UNSC) mandate that goes beyond UNSC resolution 1970, regional support and a terrible escalation in the violence against Libyans. Ahead of NATO's scheduled meeting next Tuesday to discuss the Libyan situation, Europe and the US have already called on Muammar Gaddafi to step down, as they await movement on all three fronts - the UN, the Arab League and the UN.
Will a NATO imposed NFZ lead to a blowback?
There are certainly risks to any long-term expansive military campaign conducted against an Arab country by NATO, which lost its credibility in Arab eyes after its wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Western powers reckon they are in a 'damned if they do, damned if they don't' position.
Moreover, the last three NFZs that NATO commanded - Iraq in 1991 to1993, Bosnia in 1993 and Kosovo in 1999 - were cumbersome and comprehensive military campaigns with a high cost, which in reality did not achieve their declared aims or prevent a serious escalation of violence against civilians. The NATO US-led military campaign for Kosovo required 38,000 sorties over 78 days.
Meanwhile, it is not clear whether Russia or China, the two veto capable members, will agree to a new UN resolution in the present circumstances, especially as forces loyal to Gaddafi make certain military comebacks in the west of the country.
Without a UNSC resolution, a new "coalition of the willing" - meaning a Western-led military campaign without a UN mandate - will risk a major escalation and possible errors, leading to a major backlash in Libya and the Arab region.
Does that explain NATO's hesitation?
Yes to a large degree. NATO powers are worried that any serious military involvement could end up with a blowback against the West.
They also do not see eye-to-eye on the scale and risks of a NFZ and have different national priorities regarding Libya, as well as contrasting views regarding using force in the Arab region.
The Americans have spoken loosely about a NFZ, which according to Robert Gates, the US secretary of defence, is a complicated military campaign that will involve sustained bombardments of air defence and communications command - all of which involves serious risks and possible military escalation. And Gates is not alone in his concerns.
The Obama administration is not keen on taking decisive action that could further implicate the US militarily in the quicksand of the Arab world. The White House seems to have concluded that it is more beneficial for US national interests not to be too closely drawn into or associated with the Arab revolutions. Rather, they judge each case on its merits and according to cost and yield. Supporting the monarch in Bahrain, congratulating the revolutionaries in Egypt and Tunisia, and taking its time over Libya, is part of the Obama administration's new "pragmatic" approach to the region.