Successful Revolutions and Unsuccessful rebellions follow a common pattern: those who hold the heavy armored weapons and aircraft usually win in the street. This is one major reason why the participation of elements of the military are very often critical in revolutions, and why the Egyptian revolution succeeded in the way that it did while other attempts at revolutions such as the 1989 Tienanmen square attempt failed, the Shiite uprising in 1991 failed, and the Iranian Green movement also failed. Kudos to the administration for demonstrating how the US military should be deployed -- with wise and decisive timing in support of a strong domestic movement which is region wide, and has already shown its ability to topple two North African dictatorships. This stands in sharp contrast to the well planned, but poorly designed wars conducted by Republican Administrations which relied upon the questionable support of ex-patriots and exiles, or minority movements, which is what happened during Afghanistan and the second War in Iraq, perpetrated by the last Republican administration -- it is analogous to the difference between modern surgery, and medieval blood letting.
Typically, the turning points in revolutions come when elements of the military decide to support or suppress the people in the street. During the Russian Revolution, the Bolsheviks began to win only when they turned machine gun units in the streets, while also convincing elements of the army and navy based in St. Petersburg to switch sides to the revolutionary cause. Without these critical supporters, the people protesting the Tsar in the street would have been mowed down by machine guns, artillery, and naval bombardment. No amount of protesters, even supplied with small arms, could fight through armor which their bullets would be useless against. However, with the support of the navy to prevent coastal bombardment of city protesters, and the support of the military in the streets, those loyal to the tsar could not overcome the sheer numbers of human flesh in the streets. Unfortunately in that revolution, the United States, and the west in general decided to send troops to support the counter revolutionaries, holding on to a failed system of government, stoking the enmity of the Russian people to this very day.
During the Tienanmen square protests, the turning point occurred when the Chinese Communist Party called in armored tank units based outside the city, who were manned mostly by rural peasants unsympathetic to the cause of the protesters in the street. A single tank could roll over dozens, if not hundreds of peaceful protesters without a second thought. The result was that peaceful protests in the mold of Martin Luther King, utterly failed to cause change in China towards democracy, and instead triggered a political tightening in the country that still has not been loosened.
The Green Movement in Iran just a few years ago failed partly because there was very little open support within the military and revolutionary guard. Thus, not only did the protesters have to face the irregular Basiji units, but their leaders also knew that when push came to shove, the planes, tanks and machine guns would be rolled into the streets. In fact, the potentially disloyal units in the regular army, as opposed to those in the Revolutionary Guard, were moved to the border of Iraq, ostensibly to prevent foreign intervention by US troops in Iraq, a highly unlikely scenario. More likely, the real motivation was to move troops sympathetic to the protester's cause away from the urban centers of dissent. Fortunately, the carnage such an escalation would produce did not materialize, likely because the leaders of the green movement were well informed by their former colleagues in the government that they did not have the support necessary to succeed.
The Iranian Revolution of 1979 was a very different story with the soldiers in the army allowing Protesters to climb unto the tanks being used to intimidate them in the streets. When the soldiers whom manned the armored units showed, through their actions which showed that they were with the people, the protests became a successful revolution. The case of the recent Egyptian revolution was also illustrative, with the turning point coming when the Egyptian army declared it would not fire upon protesters. Once the regime realized it could not use its armored vehicles and machine guns in the streets, and lacked the support of the military, it backed down and handed control over.
However, in Libya, the tribal makeup of the armed forces, with the resulting loyalty of the most important units to the regime, have allowed Qaddafi to maintain control of his air force, tanks, and heavy weapons, since he allocated those resources to his people. The light infantry being given to the unreliable, tribal allies. This is the a similar control Saddam Hussein used to maintained his grip on power because of the Sunni control of his military, which allowed him to destroy the Shiite uprising in 1991, despite the greater numbers of anti-regime protesters in the areas he did not control. Hussein easily suppressed the mass uprising with mustard gas shot from artillery and bombs dropped from planes when he realized the United States and her allies would not intervene even in the smallest way. Note that only after the mass slaughter did the West decide to impose a no-flight zone in Iraq, which stopped the mass killings, since bombs could no longer be dropped from afar. Street fighting by the army was much less palpable, and the mass killings stopped, although key leaders were one by one arrested in the night and presumably executed.
When the Libya rebellion broke out across key cities, the army and air force officers and soldiers were by and large loyal to the regime, tied to Qaddafi by tribal ties. Some lightly armed units did rebel, but rebel cities lacked support against aircraft, artillery, and armored units. The caliber of their weapons are simply too light to penetrate any of the equipment held by Qaddafi. Qaddafi understood this, as do most of the authoritarian Royalist regimes centered in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf, though we are aiding the rebels in Libya while only using soft power on regimes we have propped up for the last half century. Qaddafi, having seized power in a revolution of his own also understood the danger of delay, and moved quickly to break the will of the people in the street by deploying his regimes firepower in a move to shock and awe dissident factions. He quickly retook cities which had spontaneously thrown off his yoke. By now, his troops, rolling on tanks supported by helicopter gunships and warplanes would have easily defeated the lightly armed and loosely organized nascent rebellion across Libya.
Fortunately, the West decided to act quickly to prevent this by first threatening and then establishing a no-fly zone to disable his ability to deploy air units to slaughter the rebellious factions in his countries, since Qaddafi has always shown he would not hesitate to unleash force and rain death on his own people. However, with the aerial strikes led by the west, the army and air force had to pause in their blitzkrieg against their own country. With their tanks, unable to move on exposed highways, and their airplanes unable to drop bombs on rebel cities, the protesters and rebels have a real chance to throw off the yoke of Qaddafi since the fight now depends upon the will of the people on the ground, which by all reports, is strongly on the side of the rebels, even in key cities like Tripoli. In fact, rebels hold the majority of the ground, and cannot be dislodged now that Qaddafi lacks real manpower to fight them one man at a time in the streets. The people of Libya can now determine their fate, democratically in the a sense, though they vote with the number of men and women who are willing to turn out with small arms against the equally lightly armed units, since much of the heavy armor, and aircraft -- force multipliers in military jargon -- have been disabled.
The UN resolution could not have come sooner, and was surprising given that 2 major veto holding members of the UN also face similar instability at home and preach a doctrine of non-violence, though they have never hesitated to unleash their own heavy weapons against dissident regions in their own countries. What is reported by some in the media as a sloppy design and an unclear military operation was actually a well studied and well timed use of force which will be more helpful than any armed intervention in recent history -- armed interventions which normally have taken weeks if not months to plan and prepare, giving the opponent an equal amount of time to scurry away all the important stuff and to take key positions within rebel regions to make a ground intervention unpalatable or expensive. In fact, a better planned, better coordinated intervention of any other kind would have resulted in a quagmire: by the time an intervention got under way, the government would have already been in control of the street and the psychological support of the people for the armed rebels would have been broken by fear and the sight of bodies piling up in the street.
The United States was right and wise to intervene in the early stages of the Libyan Revolution. The boldness shown by the State department in pushing a harder line by creating a no-fly and no-drive zone will likely save more lives and money while also creating conditions which will allow the Libyan revolution to succeed. It also sends a political message to friendly regimes that democratic reform must happen or else US support which is critical to their regimes is likely to be withdrawn. Further, President Obama should be given much credit for helping to inspire the Arab Youth to realize that democracy is not the newest form of the white man's colonialism, and that if a black man in the United States can be elected in free and fair elections, why can't a similar thing occur in their own countries. He is a dramatic illustration that the United States is not a colonialist racist power as some would portray, but rather a multi-ethnic democracy, which elected a African-American President whom many in this country believe is a black Muslim -- perhaps this false perception is not so bad at all: no one can portray the air strike as a white man once again trying to steal oil from the brown man. Instead, it is a liberal humanitarian aiding and potentially saving his freedom loving brothers and sisters.