I am not a scholar of international law nor do I pretend to be one. Indeed, I tend to be a realist when it comes to International Law: that it is not all that binding. So, when it comes to doing something about Libya, the question for me is more about what kinds of intervention would have what kinds of benefits/costs. Is it worth it? Can we do it?
Marc Lynch has been calling for a no-fly zone, (and so has Nicholas Kristof) but the time for that may have passed. The conflict is now in the streets of the cities of Libya apparently, so stopping the planes from dropping bombs would have a marginal impact. Furthermore, it is not clear what this would take. Yes, the US has an aircraft carrier in the Med, but that would be about it unless the flight distances from Sicily/Malta/Crete (certainly not Egypt/Tunisia) permit planes to hang over/near Libyan airspace. Plus Libya has anti-aircraft missiles, so would a no-fly zone requirement bombing those? Remember, when the US was patrolling no-fly zones over Iraq, there would be the occasional bombing mission to take out such missile sites. And the Standard Operating Procedure for the US is to bomb these sites first before doing anything else.
The Arabist blog raises good questions about doing something or doing nothing. "a Qaddafi victory would be absolutely dismal. Firstly, the behavior of regime loyalists in Tripoli suggests that there would be terrible reprisals. Secondly, it would probably many dark years ahead for the people of Libya." We clearly want Qaddafi and his coterie gone, for the consequences of them sticking around are pretty awful.
But what can be done? We could plink some tanks, but given that the armed forces of Libya are now divided, how do we know we would be hitting the right ones? Jumping into a counter-coup/civil war is a very difficult prospect. It is not clear how the folks on the ground would respond to an American intervention. And yes, it would be an American one. NATO is currently out of the picture, no way would the EU be able to step up. And we are all stretched by the other wars and efforts.
Economic sanctions are clearly called for. Stopping the flow of military aid (thank you, Germany) is a must. But anything more than that is pretty hard to do and do well. There are limits to American power, to the power of international organizations and there are limits to efficacy of force in general. Yes, we could jump and help the eastern part of Libya secede.
But is that really in the cards? Given the overstretch of the US military, is this something the US can do with few risks to ourselves and to the folks we would like to protect?
Again, this conflict, like the previous ones, remind us that lots of problems in the world are very, very hard and we do not have a magic wand to make them go away.