We intervened in Libya to avoid a humanitarian disaster citing both UN sanction and the authorization of the Arab League, but then strange things have happened. Here are some of them:
a) We undermined both organizations when we expanded the war from a no-fly-zone to an open ended attack on Qaddafi's ground assets—even as we usually denied just that and as both organizations were reluctant to spell out such methods;
b) We have never stated the mission, sometimes talking about saving the rebels, at others of removing Qaddafi; to this day, no one either in Libya or Washington can distinguish our official from de facto policy;
c) Using the cover of the UN came at the expense of undermining the U.S. Congress; in the past, presidents who wanted to use force abroad have gone to the UN and Congress, or gone to Congress without the UN, or gone to neither. Never have we gone both to the UN and the Arab League, but not to Congress;
d) It is not just that we do not know who or what the rebels are beyond their appearances on CNN, Fox, and the BBC; we do not know what their agenda would be if they won with our help;
e) Qaddafi is a monster, but one with a propensity the last four years to woo Western intellectuals and academics (with honoraria) in the hopes his son Saif would be able to put a Western face on his tyranny; are we now bombing the very country we used to praise for being in rehab?
f) We have no typology of Middle East unrest, and can't distinguish why meddling in Iran is not good and meddling in Egypt is very good; and so we have no blueprint for interventions: 'no' to humanitarian crises in the Ivory Coast, 'yes' to Libya? 'No' to helping oust an Assad, but 'yes' to Qaddafi. Privately we know an inattentive Obama does have a logic: wait until a resistance movement seems 48 hours from success and then piggy-back on its momentum. But such opportunism is hardly a policy that can be articulated and sometimes it backfires, as in the sputtering rebel movement that went from a sure thing to a long shot in 72 hours.
g) Some readers may cite an earlier preemptive U.S. war against a nation state that we suddenly and unilaterally abandoned without success—such as is the present case with Libya. I cannot other than perhaps a few early punitive raids into Mexico aimed at bandits but not the state. If you are going to take Vienna, take Vienna.
h) Obama has at least brought clarity to the past criticisms during 2001-9 and future rules of public protest: if you are going to attack an oil-producing, Muslim Arab country in the Middle East that poses no threat to U.S. security, without either public support or Congressional authorization, and wish to avoid anti-war opposition, then do so as a liberal president.