Image Credit: Nino Jose Heredia/©Gulf News

"If it were done," 'twere well it were done quickly." — Shakespeare's Macbeth 

Where Libya is concerned, however, speed is easy to urge but harder to enforce. This is particularly the case when few of those involved seem ready to acknowledge that with its intervention to protect civilians and (implicitly, at least) support the rebels, the international community, for better or worse, now owns Libya's civil war.

In the two decades since the Gulf War it has often been observed that if Kuwait's main export had been dates (as was the case prior to the discovery of oil) the events of 1990-91 would have gone rather differently. It is difficult to imagine a million Western and Arab soldiers massing in the Saudi desert to liberate Kuwait under those circumstances.

Most people who make this observation do so to telegraph a feeling that the West in general, and America in particular, were hypocritical in their approach to the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait.

I, however, have never looked at it that way. Did America act in its own self interest? Of course it did. Show me a country that doesn't. Altruism is rarely a driving factor in international affairs.

If we accept that altruism rarely drives foreign policy, one must ask why the international community has embarked on this course of action; why it has chosen to take the side of the rebels in Libya's civil war?

It is not, as Colonel Muammar Gaddafi has already charged, and as others will no doubt echo, out of any neo-colonial desire to take over the country and steal its oil. As I wrote in this space two weeks ago, one thing you can be certain of is that neither the Americans nor any other Western government have the stomach for another Middle Eastern land war and occupation.

Instead, what occupies the thoughts of many Americans and Europeans are memories of the moral failures of recent history. The fact that Gaddafi is not much more popular in the corridors of the Arab League or the African Union than he is in Paris, London or Washington merely makes the task that much easier.

By all accounts memories of the slow-motion carnage of Bosnia and fast-forward genocide in Rwanda now preoccupy many in the corridors of power as they watch the unfolding situation in and around Benghazi.

Bosnia remains a stain on the West's collective conscience. Former US president Bill Clinton has repeatedly said that his failure to intervene to stop the killing in Rwanda is the greatest regret of his presidency.

Libya, with its easy military accessibility, unlovable leader and seemingly clear division between ‘good guys' and ‘bad guys' offers an excellent opportunity to balance the moral scales.

The question has never been whether the international community has the means to tilt the Libyan conflict in the rebels' favour, or whether stopping the massacre of civilians can command public support in Western or Arab capitals.

Nor is it even whether empowering Libya's rebels (like America's experience with the Afghan mujahideen a generation ago) may ultimately create more problems than it solves.

The question is whether the international community — and by this I mean Arab countries as much as, if not more than, Western ones — has the wherewithal to finish what it has started.

Ultimately, all humanity has a stake in the principle that dictators should not be able to slaughter their citizens with impunity while hiding behind the cover of state sovereignty. Past a point, the shedding of blood ceases to be a matter of any country's internal affairs. The question today is whether, having taken this stand, the nations leading the charge in Libya are actually willing to follow through on it.

In the longer term, some may ask whether the international community will go on to apply this principle evenhandedly across the region. The answer: of course not. That said, merely acknowledging that the principle exists represents a huge change in the way the affairs of nations are conducted — a change for the better.

But that will only be the case if we are all willing to finish what we have started. The danger is that no one really knows where that admonition will lead in Libya. We must do so, however, because it is what our collective credibility demands, and what the Libyan people deserve. No altruism there. That's politics. 

Gordon Robison teaches Middle East politics at the University of Vermont.