LONDON By the time the outside world agrees on a response to Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi's bloody onslaught against a popular revolt, it could all be over.
The advance of Gaddafi's better-armed forces, who seem to have shown little regard for civilians when storming in to retake rebel strongholds, has outrun the slow pace of hesitant initiatives being discussed by European, U.S. and Arab leaders.
An Arab League call for the United Nations to impose a no-fly zone to protect the revolt, was welcomed by France, which has taken a lead in backing the rebels and will host G8 foreign ministers in Paris on Monday.
But others, notably the United States and other European Union states such as Germany, remain very cautious about military engagement. No U.N. Security Council meeting had yet been scheduled, despite events racing in Libya.
"The international community is dragging its feet," said Saad Djebbar, a London lawyer and expert on Libyan affairs. "The diplomatic pace is very slow. There is an urgency to act quickly before those people are finished off by Gaddafi's forces."
"The international community has to act now -- not only to protect Benghazi from an onslaught but because of what it means for the rest of the world if Gaddafi is allowed to remain the leader of Libya," said Geoff Porter, a U.S.-based political risk consultant who specialises in North Africa.
LESSONS FOR OTHER RULERS
After the relatively peaceful and speedy overthrow of Arab strongmen in Egypt and Tunisia, Western disarray on Libya may persuade other authoritarian rulers facing unrest, from Yemen to Bahrain, that the best antidote to revolt is violence.
"If they allow Gaddafi to win, that would encourage other Arab despotic regimes to use brutal force against their people to stamp out revolt," Djebbar said. "This will erase the gains of the people power we have seen in Egypt and Tunis.
"It sends a very bad signal to other movements."
The reasons for delay are various. Western governments say they do not know Gaddafi's opponents, such has been the stifling of dissent in Libya over 40 years. And campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan have shown them the risk a war in Libya would pose of losses for their own forces and of provoking Muslim anger.
"The threshhold for involvement in Libya is higher than in other countries like Bosnia because there is a feeling that the Iraq war was a bad, unreasonable and illegitimate war," said Philip Robins, a lecturer at Oxford University. "It is a big misfortune for the Libyan people because every time you have a new case that case is judged according to the previous case."
Robins also suggested that the spread of Arab unrest in the past three months from North Africa to the Gulf, where oil-rich rulers are important Western allies against Iran and al Qaeda, may have tempered the West's enthusiasm for backing rebellion.
"The Gulf is crucial because of the presence of Iran and the location of the oilfields," he said. "These two issues have changed Americans from being instinctive supporters of protesters to being cautious about any change in the Gulf."
Although opposed to Gaddafi, the U.S. administration may quietly welcome the fact that the threshold for revolution could now be higher in Bahrain, or Yemen or even Saudi Arabia, than it was in Egypt and Tunisia. It would not want to see a tumble of dominoes down to its Gulf Arab allies where the stakes are high.
"The environment for uprising and revolution, which we saw in Tunisia and Egypt, may have come to an end," Robins said.
PRESSURE TO ACT?
There is some pressure on Western governments to step in as popular sympathy grows for the rebellion against Gaddafi and as evidence, such as from the once rebel-held city of Zawiyah, emerges to suggest civilians are suffering, reminding Europeans in particular of events that prompted intervention in Bosnia.
"The Libyan people need help. We're in danger. The east is in danger," said Abdel Hadi Omar, a civilian rebel volunteer in the town of Ajdabiyah, in an emotional appeal.
"The Libyan people can't cope with Gaddafi's weapons. We have people but we don't have means," he told Reuters.
Libya expert Djebbar questioned the hesitation of Western leaders who have insisted that any intervention must have a broad consensus: "The people of Libya have risen up, you have a collective consensus and people are crying out for freedom and democracy. This should be enough grounds to help save them."
The rare show of united resolve from the Arab League, which has suspended Libya and denounced "serious crimes" by Gaddafi which had stripped him of his legitimacy, will make it harder for Washington and its allies to argue that calls for military intervention do not have broad support in the region.
Other considerations which may drive greater support for action to help the rebels may be the risks of civil war bringing anarchy and a refugee exodus to the Mediterranean. Western governments will also be reluctant to have to return to dealing with Gaddafi if he retains control of Libya's oil.
"The division of the country is more likely than a complete victory for Gaddafi," said Robins, who doutbed Gaddafi's forces could retake Benghazi. "At the very most Gaddafi will go back to the era of international sanctions post Lockerbie. Libya will be isolated and will be a pariah state like Serbia in 1990."
Djebbar said: "If Gaddafi cannot retake Benghazi he would continue to be a warlord and let his country slide into civil war like Somalia. He will have two Libyas or a chaotic Libya."
(Editing by Alastair Macdonald)