Ross Douthat offers a prudent assessment of the pitfalls inherent in the war in Libya:
Because liberal wars depend on constant consensus-building within the (so-called) international community, they tend to be fought by committee, at a glacial pace, and with a caution that shades into tactical incompetence. And because their connection to the national interest is often tangential at best, they’re often fought with one hand behind our back and an eye on the exits, rather than with the full commitment that victory can require.
These problems dogged American foreign policy throughout the 1990s, the previous high tide of liberal interventionism. In Somalia, the public soured on our humanitarian mission as soon as it became clear that we would be taking casualties as well as dispensing relief supplies. In the former Yugoslavia, NATO imposed a no-flight zone in 1993, but it took two years of hapless peacekeeping and diplomatic wrangling, during which the war proceeded unabated, before American air strikes finally paved the way for a negotiated peace.
Our 1999 intervention in Kosovo offers an even starker cautionary tale. The NATO bombing campaign helped topple Slobodan Milosevic and midwifed an independent Kosovo. But by raising the stakes for both Milosevic and his Kosovo Liberation Army foes, the West’s intervention probably inspired more bloodletting and ethnic cleansing in the short term, exacerbating the very humanitarian crisis it was intended to forestall.
The same kind of difficulties are already bedeviling our Libyan war.
It seems almost too obvious to suggest that one should have clear tactical aims and political objectives in warfare, but Douthat rightly notes that recent history has not been encouraging on this point. Despite his uneasy entry into the Libyan conflict, Obama's already gone farther than anyone expected. Let's hope he steers clear of the mistakes of his liberal interventionist predecessors.