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What if we had sent troops into Rwanda?

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Just three weeks after a no-fly zone was imposed on Libya, the fear is growing that maybe it was a mistake to intervene in another country's internal problems.

Once again, the critics say, western nations are at risk of becoming embroiled in an unending and unwinnable nasty little war.

Or, as Hardy said to Laurel: "Here's another fine mess" we've gotten ourselves into.

It certainly looks that way today, but it shouldn't come as too much of a surprise for the military theorists in NATO headquarters.

With the possible exception of the Kosovo War, air power alone has never won a single campaign.

A successful outcome requires boots on the ground, although, as history shows, even that is not a guarantee of victory.

In the case of Libya, however, it is the logical next step to achieve the goals of ousting Moammar Gadhafi and protecting the civilian populations under rebel control.

The current situation will lead to a stalemate at best, but probably a disaster in the long term if it is allowed to continue.

The ragtag army of rebels simply doesn't have much juice left.

The UN resolution that authorized the no-fly zone forbids an "occupation force," but it does not rule out the distribution of weapons, communications equipment, intelligence and training to the rebels.

Nor does it prevent the temporary deployment of troops to prevent a massacre.

It's possible, of course, that arming the rebels or introducing ground troops would merely create "another fine mess," with higher casualties in a war without end.

And even if Gadhafi fled the country under such circumstances, it's hard to imagine how the dust could settle without deploying an occupation force of some type.

There are no good alternatives and there never were. Sometimes there are only bad options.

There's also something we'll call the alternative theory of history.

Let's say, for example, that Western forces intervened in Rwanda in 1994 to protect the minority Tutsi ethnic group.

Instead of withdrawing troops as tensions escalated, the UN authorized the use of strength to stabilize the country.

As a result, thousands of people were killed by western troops and hundreds of soldiers were also killed or injured. It took years and billions of dollars, let's say, before the situation improved. Most people agreed it just wasn't worth the cost.

Such a development would have been one of those negative options and the same critics who are wringing their hands over Libya would be pontificating about the folly of intervening in the private affairs of another country.

Let them settle it themselves, they say.

In this alternative history, no one would ever have known the intervention saved the lives of nearly one million people, who were mercilessly butchered over 100 days, the largest genocide in history to occur over such a short period of time.

Unfortunately, international conflict is not a chess game that can be replayed over and over again until the right move or the winning gambit is discovered.

Right now, the leaders of France, Great Britain and the United States are staring at the chess board, wondering what to do next.

There are no good moves available and there is no taking back moves that have already been made. They can hope for the best -- that Gadhafi resigns (unlikely) -- or prepare for a massacre.

Or they can increase the military pressure, which is the only manoeuvre that could oust Gadhafi and prevent a humanitarian disaster.

It doesn't require a bold move, either. The West can level the field by providing equipment and training before deciding if stronger action is needed, or even advised.

To do nothing now, however, would be a betrayal of the principles that inspired countries such as Canada to join the coalition. Rather than encouraging Libyans to risk their lives in open revolt, it would have been better to do nothing at all.

Sometimes there are only bad options.

dave.obrien@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 9, 2011 J11

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