|The cost of using only airpower against Gaddafi is strategic incoherence that will likely result in a stalemate [REUTERS]
Phantasms from the 1990s are upon us: no-fly zones; the rhetoric of humanitarian war in Washington, Europe and the UN; guarantees that no US ground troops will be deployed; an air war which alone cannot decisively affect earthbound events.
President Obama swung for ringing tones in his statement on Libya, condemning idleness in the face of merciless tyrants who brutally assault innocents.
In the legal codes through which the international community acknowledges so untoward a happening as war, the UN resolved to protect civilians and create a cordon sanitaire around the blighted country.
But it was all a faraway echo from the Yugoslav heyday of believing people could be bombed for humanitarian effect.
The language of liberal war may still flow as easily in the West as Libya's sweet crude, but even the true believers are running on fumes on this one.
Few critics have even bothered to point out the obvious selectivity. Obama meant no idling before this particular tyrant, while the UN Security Council offered the beatific state of protected innocence to some Libyans only, not to Syrians, Yemenis, Palestinians or Bahrainis, much less those suffering in the Ivory Coast, Zimbabwe or elsewhere.
Nonetheless the idea of liberal war, of the use of force for humanitarian objectives, continues to cloud opinion and profoundly informs the official terms of debate, in international forums and especially in Western Europe. It also shapes the character of coalition operations over Libya.
Denying war, the art of euphemisms
Liberal war is so useful, particularly to 'good Europeans', because it denies it is war. It is a no-fly zone protecting human rights!
While quite obviously joining the Libyan rebels in their war on the regime, coalition commanders are forced to pretend otherwise. They regularly and politely inform Gaddafi's forces where they need to regroup to avoid being destroyed in the name of universal values.
In essence, and without ever saying so, the message to Gaddafi is that he must stop defending himself from those who would overthrow him. Why, we might ask, is it not possible to speak more plainly, at least to ourselves? Why must war be confronted with liberal euphemisms?
At the core of liberal war is a contradiction between big rhetoric – humanity, innocence, evil – and limited liability, signalled by 'no ground troops' and the pathetic legions of UN peacekeepers.
In wars primarily justified on altruistic grounds, the elected leaders of the Western democracies wisely, if conveniently, spare the blood if not the dollars of their own citizens.
The chosen weapon is air power and the cost is strategic incoherence. Absent a terrestrial policy, air forces are left to blow things up, surveil the results, and fly about. Other things being equal, the likely outcome is stalemate.
Most pernicious is the way liberal war frames understanding of conflicts. It performs a sleight of hand that can only be admired.
A dramatic play
There is space for two main actors, the humane intervener (typically the international community led by the West) and the barbaric perpetrator (a changing and selective cast of leaders, regimes and ethnic groups).
As if by magic, real countries and peoples, with interwoven histories, become characters in a morality play, essential types who behave according to innate characteristics.
The drama comes in various versions, and by no means does the West always come out well in the end. But the terms of thought are set in riveting fashion: interest and ideals, tragedy and politics, bureaucratic inaction and charisma.
Historical memory is a casualty so instantaneous no one notices. The US fought its first war in what is now Libya, against the Barbary pirates, also justified by humanitarian concerns undergirded with commercial interest.
Blinded by tales of well-intentioned Westerners and violent natives again and again, it becomes impossible to see the shared, interconnected histories that led to the current conflict, and within which Libyans, Westerners and others are situated.
Libya was granted independence as a kingdom only sixty years ago, with the US and UK as patrons, supplying cash and arms in exchange for oil and stability.
As elsewhere, then and now, this combination generated popular resentment. It provided the ground for political alternatives, which Gaddafi seized.
He may be a character from history's funhouse, sent to remind us that contingency's reign is great, but his origins are to be found in the conjoined histories of the West and the rest.
More recently, Gaddafi's border police and coast guard, trained and assisted by the EU, have been greatly valued by the 'good Europeans' for helping keep out the Africans.
Liberal war's last service is to locate the source of violence in the natives, on the backward peoples of the non-European world, not on the Westerners who exploit, invade, occupy and bomb.
If we go by official rhetoric, the problem in Iraq and Afghanistan apparently has to do with religious and ethnic prejudice among the peoples there, who irrationally keep killing one another as well as Western soldiers kindly sent to modernise them.
The great cost of liberal war is clarity. The West now risks creating a situation where it neither allows nor enables the rebels to overthrow Gaddafi, nor will it do so itself.
As in Bosnia and Kosovo, to supply arms or allow in Arab volunteers, would violate the supposed neutrality of humanitarian intervention. Gaddafi can turn to death squads and snipers to carry on his fight.
War is not a morality tale, but a violent mutual embrace. Serious thinking begins with acceptance that we in the West are now combatants, and ethical responsibility requires seeing beyond the seductions of liberalism.
Tarak Barkawi is Senior Lecturer, Centre of International Studies, University of Cambridge. He specialises in the study of war, armed forces and society with a focus on conflict between the West and the global South in historical and contemporary perspective. He is author of Globalization and War, as well as many scholarly articles.
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.