For eight years, it looked as if the "mad dog of the Middle East" – as Ronald Reagan called Muammar Gaddafi – had been tamed. He was shorn of his nuclear programme and patronage of terrorists. After a few short weeks and 110 cruise missiles, those hopes lie buried under the rubble of Zawiya and dusty battlegrounds of Cyrenaica. But whether the Colonel stays or goes he presents a terrible set of problems to this fragile coalition.
Despite the insistence that their aims are limited, neither the intervening powers nor galvanised rebels are likely to accept a partition of Libya. The West has no appetite for policing this indefinitely, and the spectre of a Gaddafi victory has concentrated minds.
After the aborted Iraq uprisings of 1991, Saddam Hussein summarily executed thousands of rebels under a doctrine of collective responsibility. Gaddafi would not hesitate to do likewise. Fifteen years ago, his regime murdered 1,200 of its own citizens at Abu Salim prison. The dehumanising language used towards his opposition – "stray dogs" and "rats" – signals that he would have little compunction about inflicting terrible retribution. But a new Gaddafi era would have not just humanitarian, but also strategic consequences.
First, an embittered and embattled Gaddafi might reactivate old ties to terrorists. Long before ordering the bombing of two passenger jets (Pan Am 103 in 1988 and UTA 772 in 1989), his regime had established a "jihad fund" that armed a slew of Palestinian terrorist outfits. He branched out to groups including the Red Army Faction in Germany and the Irish Republican Army. Even if military action freezes the status quo, Gaddafi could revert to type by using oil revenues to prosecute his promised "long war".
Second, frustrated rebels could turn to dangerous alternatives, allowing al-Qa'ida a new foothold in North Africa. We should not give undue credence to Gaddafi's delusional invocation of an al-Qa'ida hand in the fighting. But captured records show that almost a fifth of catalogued militants in Iraq's post-2003 insurgency came from Libya, which represented the single highest contributing country on a per capita basis. Nearly half the Libyan fighters came from a single town east of Benghazi, Darnah.
Gaddafi's departure, however, would be nearly as dangerous. He spent most of the past four decades hollowing out political institutions and civil society meaning that, as in both the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, even a military rout might be followed by a protracted struggle to re-establish a functioning state.
Western leaders may have learnt their lesson and might push for a constitutional settlement. But they could be held hostage to the ambitions of re-energised rebels, who might push for a siege of Tripoli or take their own bloody revenge on loyalists.
The intervening powers face a terrible choice between prolonged containment of a reckless and teetering despot on the one hand, and a hazardous push for regime change on the other. Each option brings grave humanitarian and strategic risks. As Arab support melts away and Washington hesitates, this coalition of the ambivalent may find itself caught in between.
Shashank Joshi is an Associate Fellow of the Royal United Services Institute