Leading article: The international community has been found wanting over Libya

The UN is still no further forward than when it agreed to impose an arms embargo
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The Independent Online

Muammar Gaddafi's son Saif told a foreign news channel yesterday that the uprising in Libya would be over within 48 hours. Whether this was anything more than bluster will soon be clear. But with pro-Gaddafi forces mounting an assault on Misrata in the west and simultaneously bearing down on Benghazi in the east, the rebellion does appears to be in considerable trouble.

Quite simply, the speed of the fightback by pro-Gaddafi forces threatens to outrun international efforts to thwart it. And while the situation on the ground in Libya remains confused, so too are the efforts being made to co-ordinate international action. After a solid week of meetings in international capitals, there remains no consensus about what should be done.

The United Nations Security Council was gathering yesterday, to discuss a resolution tabled by Britain, France and Lebanon calling for a no-fly zone. Yet while the Arab League has called for such a measure, the British and French have signally failed to win a mandate for joint action, whether from the European Union, the G8 or Nato. And it is hard to see how the resolution placed before the UN Security Council will be any more successful if countries such as Germany and Turkey are known to be opposed, even before veto-wielding China and Russia have their say.

The greatest complicating factor, however, has been the distance kept by the United States. With its troops still committed for a few more months to Iraq, and operations in Afghanistan at a crucial stage, its reluctance to become involved militarily elsewhere in the region can be understood. Add US interests in the Gulf and the proximity of the next election campaign and President Obama's caution takes on even greater logic.

There is a heads and hearts issue here. Who in their heart would not want to help those who had courageously tried to extend the Arab reawakening to Libya, risking their lives to challenge the Gaddafi clan's oppressive rule? Yet even the no-fly zone proposed, favoured by Britain and France, holds risks, and not everyone accepts the doctrine of a "right to protect". Those in danger here are less easily identifiable than the ethnic and religious minorities the West sought to protect in Bosnia, Kosovo and Iraq. And hard-headed politicians will ask whether Western involvement would not strengthen Gaddafi's claim to be fighting colonialism.

That consideration alone demands a substantial regional component in any action. The Arab League has the capability to impose a no-fly zone, but it has submitted its request to the UN where, more than a week later, it may well founder. That possible fate highlights not only the divisions among those countries with the capacity to act, but the cumbersome nature of the procedures that attend any international coordination.

It is true that any international organisation, up to and including the UN and its Security Council, is only as good as the sum of its parts. But the time and logistics involved in getting anything to decision-point at the UN favour inertia and leave the organisation looking powerless or, at best, scrambling to catch up.

As the tide in Libya turns against the opposition, the EU, the G8 and Nato have all tried and failed to reach a consensus. The UN is no further forward than it was when the Security Council agreed – a rare show of unity – to impose an arms embargo, enforce an asset freeze and refer Gaddafi to the International Criminal Court. With hindsight it will surely be judged that the international community should, and could, have done better.