By Ray Fleming

THOSE of us searching for some solid official guidance on the Libyan crisis were left clutching at straws yesterday by Britain's Defence Minister Liam Fox and NATO's Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen who at the NATO summit both enunciated the three principles that had to be satisfied to justify direct intervention: “a demonstrable need to act; a clear legal basis; strong support in the region”. Well thanks a lot, fellows.

The need to act is matter of interpretation -- were yesterday's advances and killings by Gaddafi's forces not enough? The legal basis is a UN resolution which is in preparation but may need days of debate to get Russian and China on board. Regional support is there in words but not, as yet, in any clear statement by a relevant authority.

Meanwhile, on the one form of action that is under active review -- a no-fly zone -- there is a fundamental disagreement between its strong advocates, Britain and France, and its doubters, the United States. The US Defense Secretary Robert Gates has said that such a zone would initially require specific military action against Libyan air defences. Backing the Anglo-French view yesterday, The Times said that the zone “would not require a UN resolution” but gave no authority for that opinion. An overriding fourth principle is surely needed: that any military action should be brief and conclusive and not lead to another Iraq or Afghanistan.