After three weeks, Colonel Muammar Qaddafi’s ruthless response to the Libyan uprising has resulted in upwards of 3,000 deaths, according to a Paris-based human rights organization, while a Libyan organization believes the fatalities are more than twice the French estimate. And yet, if it is clear that the situation in Libya bears little resemblance to the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings that preceded it, the White House has been slow to adjust to the new reality.

“Going forward, we will continue to send a clear message,” President Obama said last week. “The violence must stop. Muammar Qaddafi has lost legitimacy to lead and he must leave.”

But Qaddafi isn’t going to be persuaded to leave like Tunisia’s Ben Ali and Egypt’s Mubarak. He’s dug in. Not only is he firing on his own people, he’s using them as human shields: He warned recently that thousands will die if the West attempts to intervene militarily. That may be one reason why over the last few days the Obama administration has cooled to the idea of establishing a no-fly zone over Libyan airspace.

It’s understandable that a Defense Department with two wars already in hand is reluctant to take on additional responsibilities. And there are plenty of other likely rationales keeping the administration on its heels: Does a president who prides himself on his peaceful outreach to the Muslim world really want more American soldiers in Muslim lands? Would American involvement merely further inflame the situation and affect the price of oil? Are we sure we know on whose behalf in Libya we want to shape events?

The danger is that we will allow those questions to paralyze us from acting in America’s interest. While the administration dithers, the crisis is steadily building toward civil war. If so, that war would destabilize Africa as well as other Arab states, and cause considerable damage to American prestige and influence. Continued lassitude on our part only heightens the risk.

To understand what is at stake in this war, it is best to see Libya as a large drinking well in the desert fiercely contested by various tribes, but finally brought under the control of a powerful sheikh. Access to the well means life for the sheikh’s allies, and to be denied it means death for his rivals. Because that well is filled not with water but oil, global powers also have a stake in the outcome. The conflict gathering strength in Libya is not over who gets to rule the tribes along the Mediterranean coast and desert interior of a North African country, but who gets to own Libyan oil. It is also about the chances for democracy in the Levant, and whether dictators can massacre their own people at no cost.

Qaddafi’s cash has so far attracted mostly an amateurish brand of mercenaries—impoverished youths from surrounding African states who are effectively little more than human sandbags to be stacked up in defense against the rebels. However, that will change the longer Qaddafi is able to hold on. If it becomes clear that Qaddafi has successfully fortified himself, foreign money will take a position in the conflict. And given the nature of regional actors and Qaddafi’s past relationships with them, it is not difficult to guess who will back the colonel and who will stake the rebels.

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia sees any hot zone in the Middle East as a potential dumping ground for its homegrown jihadists. In the past, Riyadh dispatched its extremist youth to Afghanistan, Algeria, Bosnia, and Iraq, in the hopes that they would die there. We know what came next. The Saudis would see a war-torn Libya as another opportunity to get rid of their domestic problem. They have no love for Qaddafi, who tried to have King Abdullah assassinated in 2003.

Iran can hardly be expected to ignore a vacuum where it might enhance its regional strategy. A presence in any place offering a border with U.S. allies like Egypt and Tunisia is good for Tehran. The Islamic Republic’s ally Syria would likely come down on Qaddafi’s side as well, especially since Syrian intelligence services built their ties to Qaddafi during an earlier Middle East civil war in Lebanon.

The Obama administration, meanwhile, seems to be learning regional history from scratch. But we know what a civil war in the Middle East looks like. We know how these conflicts drag in their neighbors and destabilize bordering states. We know the humanitarian cost and the cost to American interests. We know what happens in the aftermath. American soldiers are in Afghanistan to prevent that country from becoming a failed state and terrorist haven. A civil war in Libya promises to create a dynamic potentially many times worse. Are we really going to forgo the opportunity to influence the outcome in America’s favor?

—Lee Smith

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