What's so special about Libya?
What's so special about Libyan civilians?
I ask the question provocatively, because it's being asked elsewhere following the start of air strikes against Muammar Gaddafi's forces in Libya.
What about civilians in Yemen? Bahrain? Syria? And if you want to look beyond the Arab world, what about civilians in Ivory Coast, slipping once again ever closer to all-out civil war?
When the wave of pro-reform uprisings began in Tunisia, thousands of people throughout the Arab world asked themselves: "Could we do the same here?"
And now that US, French and British warplanes are hitting targets in Libya, evidently hoping to destroy Colonel Gaddafi's military infrastructure, Arab leaders must be asking themselves: "Could they do the same here?"
For now, the answer seems to be that it's highly unlikely. A couple of days ago, I asked a senior Conservative MP, James Arbuthnot, chairman of the House of Commons defence select committee: "If Libya, why not Yemen or Bahrain?"
This was his reply: "That's a perfectly fair point. But just because we can't solve every problem doesn't mean we shouldn't solve this problem, which we can solve now ... We have to deal with this on a piece by piece basis."
On Friday, just a matter of hours before the first air strikes in Libya, dozens of anti-government protesters were shot dead in the Yemeni capital, Sana'a, and five were killed in the Syrian city of Daraa, close to the border with Jordan.
So far, there's been no suggestion that another UN security council resolution should be drafted, putting in place a no-fly zone over either Yemen or Syria. And in Bahrain, Saudi troops have moved in to help the government, not the protesters.
Diplomacy has always revolved primarily around considerations of self-interest. As the 19th century British prime minister and foreign secretary Lord Palmerston put it: "We have no eternal allies, and we have no perpetual enemies. Our interests are eternal and perpetual, and those interests it is our duty to follow."
So in Western capitals -- and with many misgivings, in Arab capitals too -- the calculation is that national self-interest is better served with Muammar Gaddafi off the scene. He has few friends in places that matter, and has made too many enemies during his 40-plus years in power.
The same is not true of President Ali Abdullah Saleh in Yemen, or Bashar al-Assad in Syria, or King Hamad in Bahrain. The Yemeni leader is (or was? He may be gone within hours, it seems) regarded as an ally by the US and Saudi Arabia, even if both wish he would do more to accommodate at least some of the demands of the protesters - and President Assad of Syria, while certainly no friend of Washington, is regarded by his fellow Arab leaders as a major figure to be treated with respect.
In Bahrain, King Hamad, and more importantly his uncle, the long-serving prime minister, Prince Khalifa bin Salman Al Khalifa, are staunch Western allies, and host the US Navy's Fifth Fleet.
So perhaps what's special about Libyan civilians is that their leader has too few friends. UN security council resolution 1973 authorises the use of force "to protect civilians and civilian populated areas under threat of attack". But how, and when, that threat is perceived to have been removed remains unclear.
Meanwhile, other Arab leaders will be busy calculating about how best to protect their own interests. Stand firm, do whatever is necessary to crush the protests? Or follow the example of Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia and Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, and be swept away by the tide of popular protests?