In the aftermath of September 11, President George W. Bush launched the War on Terror.  It was the first war in U.S. history—declared or undeclared—against a phenomenon, a method, or an emotion, rather than against a state (or a subgroup such as the Barbary pirates or the Viet Cong).  The concept evoked Xerxes’ War on the Waters of Hellespont.

In his Inaugural Address President Barack Obama made the proceedings more surreal by stating that the enemy was “a far-reaching network of violence and hatred.”  On his instructions, in March 2009 the war was formally renamed Overseas Contingency Operation (OCO).

It was semantically befitting for the Commander in Chief to describe the latest intervention as a “time-limited, scope-limited kinetic military action” for which “our military . . . is being volunteered by others to carry out missions that are important not only to us, but are important internationally.”  For a country in her tenth year of resolutely fighting the Overseas Contingency Operation Against a Far-Reaching Network of Violence and Hatred, joining the fray in Libya does not seem all that absurd.  Colonel Qaddafi makes an unconvincing Hitler-of-the-Day, but at least he is a man, not a metaphysical concept.

Libya combines the worst elements of several Western military interventions over the past decade and a half.  A notable difference is that in previous interventions the impetus always came from Washington, followed by more or less intense pressure on our European allies to come on board.  This time the main promoters of military action were London and Paris.  That the two most powerful armies in Western Europe nevertheless needed to “volunteer” our military to deal with Qaddafi means either that they deem him very powerful indeed, or that they want to share the responsibility for, and the cost of, the resulting mess.

To gain U.N. Security Council approval on March 17, the action was presented as a 1997 Iraq no-fly-zone look-alike.  France and Britain had always intended to escalate the operation once this limited mandate was granted, however, and proceeded to do so within days of the resolution’s adoption.  The bombing raids soon became reminiscent of NATO’s 1999 air war against Serbia, civilian targets and victims included.  The parallel demand for Qad­dafi’s ouster soon opened the possibility of a further escalation—specifically prohibited by UNSC Resolution 1973—which would entail outright occupation of Libya by ground troops.  The likely result will be an open-ended quagmire similar to those in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The endeavor is devoid of congressional approval and therefore illegal.  It is also illegitimate and senseless, but not more so than Bill Clinton’s Kosovo war 12 years ago.  There is one interesting difference.  In Kosovo, NATO’s allies were the Albanian terrorist mafia known as the KLA.  They were useless as fighters, but at least we knew who “our” guys in the field were.  In Libya we have no idea.  One day, when Qaddafi’s forces are advancing, they are but helpless, poorly armed civilians.  Another day, when Qaddafi is retreating, they are resolute freedom fighters determined to liberate their country from a bloodthirsty dictator.  Director of National Intelligence James Clapper described them as a “pick-up basketball team”—a metaphor that should include reservations about its jumping and running abilities.  The predictably hawkish Paul Wolfowitz, when asked to name some of the leaders of the opposition he wants armed and trained by the United States, responded, “you can Google and find out.”  As of the first week of April Dr. Wolfowitz’s recommendation has not yielded reliable results.

In fact the best combatants among the insurgents are hard-core Islamic fundamentalists from Cyrenaica, including veterans of various jihads in Central Asia and the Balkans.  This means that “success” in this war—which by now means Qaddafi’s eventual replacement by whoever marches into Tripoli and gains the upper hand in the ensuing chaos—will be hugely detrimental to the American interest.  Instead of an eccentric dictator who tried to make himself clubbable after Saddam’s fall, Libya will be ruled by the likes of the Hizb ut-Tahrir Party, North Africa’s answer to the Taliban.  These people are most unlikely to be described by U.S. officials as “strong partners in the war on terrorism,” as Qaddafi was designated only five years ago.  According to a 2008 West Point analysis of a cache of Al Qaeda records, nearly a fifth of foreign jihadists in Iraq were Libyans; on a per capita basis, Libya provided twice as many as Saudi Arabia.

If Qaddafi is not killed or forced into exile, the problem will be no less serious.  Western “credibility” will be at stake, with predictable demands for a full-scale invasion, leading to yet another open-ended conflict, in addition to those in Mesopotamia and the Hindu Kush.  An interim “solution” may be to arm the Libyan rebels, which would herald an almost absurd replay of the blunder made in the 1980’s with the mujahideen in Afghanistan.  NATO commander Adm. James Stavridis hinted at this possibility when he told a Senate hearing that there were “flickers” in intelligence reports about the presence of Al Qaeda and Hezbollah members among the insurgents.

If the war is not escalated, however, Qaddafi will be vengeful and likely to revert to his old ways.  The cost in civilian lives in Western Europe or America may well exceed the toll of Lockerbie if he is not given some discreet assurances that, when the dust settles, he will be left in peace if he behaves and stays below the radar screen.  “Negotiating with Qaddafi” is bound to be called a defeat by those who had always intended to use the limited mandate under UNSC Resolution 1973 to achieve their own greater goals, but for once they should be ignored: The fruits of their clamoring have proved too costly in American lives and treasure over the past decade.  In view of the ability of Qaddafi’s forces to adopt new tactics that could neutralize the effect of air strikes, trading tanks and armored vehicles for SUVs fitted with weapons, Libya would be no cakewalk.

The option of a negotiated exit strategy needs to be kept open, but it requires giving up the rhetoric of regime change.  President Obama has been a shade less strident in using that rhetoric (“Qad­dafi must go” may need a creative redefinition of “must” and “go”) than his European partners or his secretary of state.  Having succumbed with some reluctance to their pressure to join the fray, he should not feel obliged to follow them into mission creep.  There would be no great political risk in his refusing to do so.  Letting M. Sarkozy end up looking like a hawkish fool would boost Obama’s standing in Europe, France included.  Doing the same to Mrs. Clinton may help his reelection prospects next year.  Getting bogged down in yet another war, bad in itself, would make him vulnerable: His approval rating has dropped by five percentage points since early March.  Such considerations should not guide grand-strategic decisions of political leaders, but they do.

Four “lessons of Libya” may be drawn even at this early stage.

The first has been known for years: “Humanitarian intervention” is a pernicious concept.  It undermines the concept of collective security, and it undermines international law as a system of commonly respected norms that are binding on all states.  Its arbitrary nature is evident in the failure of its most vocal practitioners to invoke it when the violator is too powerful (e.g., North Korea subjecting her people to famine and terror), or too insignificant (various African despots, in Sudan, Congo, etc.), or considered a partner (NATO ally Turkey’s war against the Kurds in the 1980’s and 90’s, which took the lives of at least 30,000 civilians).  Far from being “moral,” humanitarian intervention is inherently a tool of situational morality, which evaluates an actor’s policies based on his position on the evaluator’s scale of ideological utility.  V.I. Lenin would approve.

The second is that foreign interventions are easy to start and very difficult to end.  They create a dynamic of their own, which makes long-term planning and management impossible.  Ends and means get confused.  Enormous costs make “failure” unacceptable, but the definition of success becomes elusive.  Mission creep sets in, as in Indochina and (almost two millennia earlier) east of the Rhine.  Both Iraq and Afghanistan provide telling current examples.  The problem has been analyzed at length over the years in these pages.

The third is that wars should be fought not for “ideals” but against threats to national security.  All too often when no threat is present—such as Saddam’s “weapons of mass destruction”—the reductio ad Hitlerum is deployed.  Qaddafi—eccentric, unpleasant, brutal, and probably mad as he is—was not a threat to the United States.  He has been no worse a dictator than several of our Third World clients.  He is more reliable on Islamic extremism than our kleptocratic “allies” in Saudi Arabia.  Libya’s per capita GDP and other indicators show that he has shared more of his country’s oil wealth with his people than have the rulers of the Emirates, or Bahrain, or (again) Saudi Arabia.  Who rules Libya may matter to delusional one-worlders like Samantha Power, to neoconservative ideologues who have never seen a war they did not like, or to oil executives in Houston, but their interests are not the national interest.  Their interests can be reliably assumed to be the exact opposite of the American interest.

The fourth is that with each new war started without congressional approval—let alone a formal declaration—the United States loses further vestiges of its republican identity and enhances her imperial character.  His previous antiwar rhetoric notwithstanding, Obama has effectively embraced the Bush administration’s September 2001 dictum that “no statute can place any limits on the President’s determinations” because “these decisions, under our Constitution, are for the President alone to make.”  They are nothing of the sort “under the Constitution,” but that did not prevent Hillary Clinton from telling the House of Representatives that “the White House would forge ahead with military action in Libya even if Congress passed a resolution constraining the mission.”

Such a statement by Dean Acheson, John Foster Dulles, or Dean Rusk would have caused scandal.  A hundred years ago it was almost unimaginable.  By now, successive administrations—most recently those of Bill Clinton and George W. Bush—have inured us to illegality and outright criminality.  They have succeeded to such an extent that Mrs. Clinton’s explicit flaunting of abnormality is seen as normal.  That is, on balance, the worst consequence of this absurd and unnecessary war.