In a much discussed speech at West Point two weeks ago, Defense Secretary Robert Gates argued that the U.S. should get out of the business of fighting the kinds of open-ended ground wars that it has waged for the past decade in Iraq and Afghanistan. Any future Defense Secretary who advocated sending "a big American land army into Asia or into the Middle East or Africa should 'have his head examined,'" Gates said, quoting Douglas MacArthur. That line was celebrated by antiwar doves, who instantly claimed Gates as one of their own, and condemned by conservative hawks, who called him a defeatist. But both sides managed to miss Gates' real point: even as America's appetite for fighting conventional wars shrinks, the range of threats such as "terrorists, insurgents, militia groups, rogue states or emerging powers" continues to grow. American military power thus will still be needed "at various levels in various locations" around the world to "prevent festering problems from growing into full-blown crises."
Sooner than Gates may have expected, that doctrine is being put to the test in Libya. Hopes that the uprising against Muammar Gaddafi would quickly topple him have proven illusory. Gaddafi's bands of militias and foreign mercenaries have employed ruthless force against the rebels and indiscriminately opened fire on civilians, in full view of international journalists. The country is on the verge of a horrific civil war, if it hasn't started already. Libya's conflict could soon become exactly the kind of full-blown crisis Gates predicted one that claims thousands of lives, drives up oil prices, deluges Europe with refugees and creates anarchy that groups like al-Qaeda will seek to exploit.
So what should the U.S. do about it? The Obama Administration has hinted that it is considering the possibility of imposing a no-fly zone over parts of Libya to prevent Gaddafi from bombarding his own people. In recent days, a few U.S. Senators, including John Kerry and John McCain, have signaled support for such a policy. But the general consensus in Washington is that even a limited Western intervention in Libya is a bad idea. It would escalate the crisis. It would stoke Arab resentment and make the rebels look like imperialist tools. A no-fly zone might not even work, since Gaddafi's forces are doing most of their killing on the ground. And as Gates himself pointed out in testimony before Congress last week, setting up a no-fly zone might require a large-scale attack to destroy Libya's air defenses. In such a scenario, the U.S. would risk being drawn into another Middle Eastern war.
And so staying out of Libya, for now, seems to be the prudent course. But if Gaddafi employs more brutal means to attempt to remain in power and there is every indication he will the costs of inaction also will rise. Should the Libyan regime continue to act with disregard for civilian life, foreign intervention would be justified under the U.N.'s "responsibility to protect" principle, which obligates the international community to protect people from mass slaughter when their own governments fail to do so. And Washington can't claim to be a neutral actor in Libya's war. Having targeted Gaddafi's assets and endorsed regime change by calling for him to resign, the U.S. would pay a steep moral price if it stands by while his regime crushes the rebellion.
But the strongest arguments for taking a more forceful stand against Gaddafi are less moral than strategic. The Gaddafi regime's resort to violence is a rebuke to the idea that democratic change in the Arab world will be as bloodless as it was in Tunisia and Egypt. Even so, the push for a more open, less repressive Middle East stands to benefit the U.S. in the long run, by giving hope to young Arabs living under authoritarian regimes and undermining the nihilistic message of al-Qaeda. The U.S. may not have an obvious, vital stake in the outcome of Libya's civil war. But the survival of Gaddafi's regime would represent a blow to the democratic aspirations of millions and a triumph for the forces of Islamic radicalism, who will surely point to Libya as another example of the West's hypocrisy and indifference to the suffering of Muslims.
None of this means we should send in the Marines to oust Gaddafi. But there are steps the U.S. and its allies can undertake on behalf of the rebels, which would be both limited and achievable, up to and including the imposition of a no-fly zone should Gaddafi begin targeting his enemies from the air. Doing so would send a powerful signal not just to Libyans but also to those throughout the region that our commitment to change is real. The U.S. does not have a moral responsibility to deliver the Libyan people, or anyone else, from the clutches of tyranny. But it is in our interests to do what we can to help them liberate themselves.
Ratnesar, a TIME contributing editor-at-large, is a Bernard L. Schwartz Fellow at the New America Foundation and the author of Tear Down This Wall: A City, a President, and the Speech That Ended the Cold War. His column on global affairs appears every Monday on TIME.com.