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NATO Helping Cause Humanitarian Crisis in Libya?

So why are NATO and the American, British, and French governments that were so eager to take charge of the “humanitarian” intervention, not doing more to ensure their safety? And where’s the media outcry, along the lines of the reporting which helped to persuade the West to get involved in Libya in the first place? Right now the U.S. and British media seem much more interested in Amanda Knox.

It’s perhaps too much to expect NATO to unleash its airpower on the rebels; that would be rather awkward given that the “international community” is now heavily invested in helping the NTC rebuild the country and to move towards elections (British Prime Minister Cameron and French President Sarkozy have already visited Tripoli to proclaim solidarity with the rebels).

But at the very least NATO could order the rebels to halt their barrage of the city while its warplanes take out pro-Gaddafi strongholds with precision weapons, minimizing the risk to civilians. It could also arrange the delivery of food, water, and medical supplies; Western aid agencies are already moving staff and supplies into areas controlled by the NTC.

In Sirte, as throughout Libya, there are thousands of people who went along with Gaddafi’s regime without necessarily being active participants. Some of those trapped in the city won't even be Gaddafi loyalists. Others will be regime supporters, but just as under any dictatorship, many will have toed the party line in the interests of holding down a job, keeping their families safe, or simply hoping for a quiet life. Others will have supported the regime out of tribal loyalty.

This is a civil war, and the only crime most of the civilians trapped in Sirte have committed is being on the losing side. Are they now to be denied the protection of the “international community” which a few months ago proclaimed itself so concerned at the loss of innocent life in the country? What happened to the UN’s much-vaunted “Responsibility to Protect”?

Commentators on both left and right raised doubts over NATO’s Libya mission, myself included. The removal of Gaddafi is of course to be welcomed, but while a stable and democratic regime that poses no threat to Western interests may yet emerge, recent events have suggested that outcome is still in doubt.

In addition to lingering concerns about Islamist factions within the NTC’s political and military setup, there have been reports of NTC fighters torturing captured Gaddafi loyalists and mercenaries, and of weapons being stolen by former rebels -- including surface-to-air missiles which could well find their way into the hands of terrorist groups. And the NTC, while keen to get its hands on Western aid, is proving uncooperative in some respects – for example, they are refusing to reopen the investigation in the 1988 Lockerbie bombing.

All of these developments can arguably be seen as unfortunate but unintended side-effects which don't necessarily invalidate the aims of the West’s intervention in Libya; “you can't make an omelette …" and all that. It’s possible that in the long run the West’s intervention will turn out to have been worthwhile.

But NATO and the UN cannot stand by while those they’ve brought to power kill and maim civilians and create what is fast becoming a humanitarian disaster. The idea of “liberal interventionism” was already on shaky ground when the West got involved in Libya, and what happens in the coming days could discredit it for good.