Barack Obama has suddenly sidled his way into a third war in the Muslim world, his first on his own. How has he gone about it? Why Libya and not somewhere else? And how does it end?
How has Obama gone about it? In a remarkably diffident manner. Never before has an American president embarked on a war with such reserve. And I can't recall one who went to war while on tour in an entirely different part of the world.
Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi's regime announced Friday that it accepted an immediate ceasefire following Thursday's dramatic UN Security Council move to impose a no-fly zone and to take all steps necessary short of inserting ground troops to protect civilians.
But Al Jazeera, an essential tool in following all this, reported that his forces kept attacking in two places and then, early on Saturday, Gaddafi attacked Benghazi itself while international leaders conferred in Paris.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy, British Prime Minister David Cameron, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton joined a host of European leaders and several key Arab leaders -- Emir of Qatar Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud Al Faysal, United Arab Emirates Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, Moroccan Foreign Minister Dr. Taieb Fassi Fihri, Jordanian Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh, and Arab League Secretary General Amr Moussa, a leading candidate for president of Egypt -- yesterday in Paris to work out the international coalition against Gaddafi. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon was also there for the discussion of this rare intervention in a sovereign state approved by the UN Security Council.
Sarkozy was the first to emerge and speak publicly, saying that French forces were already in action in Libya.
What that meant is that French fighter jets were flying CAP (Combat Air Patrol) over embattled Benghazi. At 1645 GMT, seven hours ahead of Pacific time (Libya is nine hours ahead), French jets engaged Gaddafi's ground forces near Benghazi, reportedly destroying four tanks or armored vehicles.
Cameron then appeared separately, saying that British forces were joining in the effort, but was unspecific.
Appearing next, also separately, Hillary Clinton was resolved but circumspect about precisely what the US will do.
Finally came Obama, appearing, like the rest, quite inauspiciously on the eighth anniversary of the start of the Iraq War. From Brasilia, the sterile modernist capital of Brazil, speaking to a small group on hand and to the rest of the world via an audio feed, with no video provided, Obama made his decidedly less than ringing announcement.
"Today I authorized the armed forces of the United States to begin a limited military action in Libya," he declared in that fairly incongruous venue. "That action has now begun."
Obama said the use of force was not his first choice, as his detractors have pointed out for weeks, and reiterated that the U.S. will not send in ground troops.
Later on, Gaddafi himself got in on the act, as phoned in to Libyan state TV for a rambling 3-minute speech, notably staying studiously clear of a TV studio, or of speaking long enough to be zeroed in on via his phone.
Clearly the American strategy is to let others take the lead, or at least appear to take the lead, in yet another military intervention in the Muslim world.
Why are Obama and the others intervening in Libya and not elsewhere? After all, there's not exactly a shortage of repression in the world, especially when it comes to the Arab revolt.
Is oil a fundamental factor here? Of course. Though much more for Europe, which is pretty reliant on Libyan oil, than for America, which is not.
But oil is a global market, and the chaos in Libya affects the price, which in turn affects the economic recovery, especially if the geopolitical risk premium continues.
Of course, there would also not be an intervention if Gaddafi weren't gunning down his people in very large numbers.
They've risen up against him, just as they've risen up against other despots across the Arab world.
The Arab revolt is in the post-romance phase, and had been heading into the bummer phase. That is to say, after the early phase in which we believe that revolutions are effected simply by virtue of people rising up through the magic of social media.
Autocrats were swiftly turned out in Tunisia, then in Egypt. And the great change turned out to be, er, interim governments, which didn't really amount to a lot of change after all.
Both nations are still in early phases of revolution. We still don't know how they will turn out. Just as the outcome of the Russian Revolution was unclear in its early phases. Hopefully these turn out better than that one did.
Elsewhere we've seen the Arab revolt beginning to run up against a brick wall, or stall out entirely. (In Oman, dealing with a more enlightened autocrat, it's achieving some significant reforms.)
In Yemen and Bahrain, it's run up against increasingly bloody repression.
In Saudi Arabia, it's been squelched, through a combination of religious decree, military intimidation, and straightforward buy-outs.
As it happens, Yemen, Bahrain, and Saudi Arabia are allies, some more problematic than others, of the West. The latter, of course, is the superpower of oil. America and the West are still heavily reliant on oil, nearly 40 years after the great shock of the Arab oil embargo, imposed after America helped Israel thrash its Soviet-backed Arab enemies in the Yom Kippur War.
Without the oil, America and the West don't work. Sad and rather pathetic, but reality nonetheless. Western politicians don't get elected to let the big machine run down.
While Yemen, Bahrain, and Saudi Arabia have seriously blunted it, Libya has provided the most dramatic, and by far the bloodiest, suppression of the Arab revolt.
What is the goal in Libya, and how is this likely to play out?
As complex as the run-up to this has been, that's an even more complex question.
Some, including Obama, have already insisted that Gaddafi must go. Of course, many did that when it looked like he would be easily toppled like Mubarak in Egypt and Ben Ali in Tunisia. Which, to me, since Gaddafi is a crazy like a fox street fighter, always seemed naive.
On the Sunday chat shows, Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that the mission could be completed even if Gaddafi remained in Tripoli.
Mullen says that the alliance has already established a no-fly zone, leaving its aircraft free to protect areas of the country liberated from Gaddafi's rule from attacks by his forces.
That sounds like a de facto partition, something that, if not already achieved, may be close to it.
Might we be seeing "East Libya" free from Gaddafi's control and "West Libya" still under his rule?
Somehow I have a feeling that imperfect solution in an imperfect world won't be good enough for many. Nor is Gaddafi likely to accept being bottled up.
In any event, maintaining a de facto partition might prove to be quite the trick in its own right.
And how will the Arab world react as things go forward, under any scenario?
Arab League head Amr Moussa, who called for the no-fly zone, criticized it Sunday on Al Jazeera and elsewhere after Gaddafi brandished what he said were a few bodies of civilians killed in cruise missile strikes against his anti-aircraft systems. The regime refused to allow journalists to visit the sites of the attacks.
Moussa's statements were interesting, especially since he was in Paris Saturday for the decisions on the military intervention. (The Arab League was actually the first big international body to endorse the no-fly zone.) Of course, he's running for president of Egypt and, like most politicians, wants to cover all his bases whenever possible.
But that finger-to-the-wind performance points up a larger question. Will this action have continuing Arab support?
On Sunday, according to Al Jazeera, fighter jets from Qatar and the United Arab Emirates were deployed to take part in the mission against the Gaddafi regime.
Without that, this looks like yet another Western military intervention. Well, as long as you forget about Gaddafi vowing on international television to massacre his people, that is.
The UAE and Qatar are among the few Arab nations with aircraft sophisticated enough to operate with Western forces. But they ought to have such sophisticated forces. After all, we sold them the planes.