Last year, as violent strife engulfed Libya and a dictator made war on his opponents, the Obama administration balked at military intervention to topple the regime. This year, as similar events occur in Syria, it is balking again. But as we learned from Libya, that's no reason we won't eventually wade right in.
Why? Because we are the United States, and we are used to getting our way. Because when Democrats are in power, they itch to use military force against humanitarian crises. Because Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and UN ambassador Susan Rice are liberal hawks. Because we have a closetful of hammers and everything looks like a nail.
Last week's ceasefire raises hopes that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad will cave in to international pressure and accept democratic reforms. But that's not what ferocious autocrats usually do. More likely he will use every means to hold on to power.
For the moment, the administration is not beating the war drums. Ivo Daalder, U.S. ambassador to NATO, has taken pains to distinguish the Syria situation from the Libya situation.
In Libya, he has noted, we didn't agree to military action until we could cite 1) a demonstrable need (the prospect of mass slaughter), 2) a sound legal basis (a UN Security Council resolution) and 3) regional support.
But that formula is not really an argument against acting in Syria. It's more of a roadmap to intervention.
The "demonstrable need" comes in the form of 9,000 civilians killed by government forces. Regional support for action has already emerged, particularly from Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar.
The legal basis is the hang-up now, since Russia and China could veto a Security Council resolution authorizing action. But they may not protect Assad forever, and NATO just might find a pretext to move even without the UN's endorsement.
In cases like this, it's generally unwise to bet against intervention, no matter how improbable it may sound. When demands arose for the United States to impose a "no-fly" zone in Libya, Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen publicly disparaged the proposal. The intervention looked unlikely right up to the moment Barack Obama unleashed the aerial onslaught.
During the Balkan conflicts of the 1990s, President Bill Clinton resisted a U.S. combat role year after year. Then he went to war against Serbia—not once but twice.
Foreign policy observers with long memories can recall when the idea of sending U.S. troops into a civil war in Somalia, or dispatching Marines to topple the government of Haiti, seemed preposterous. But George H.W. Bush did the former in 1992, and Bill Clinton did the latter in 1994.
The habit isn't hard to understand when you recall the question once posed by Madeleine Albright, who was Secretary of State under Clinton: "What's the point of having this superb military you're always talking about if we can't use it?"
It's not in the nature of American presidents to turn their backs on violent upheaval anywhere we can conjure up some pretext. Obama has already put his prestige on the line by letting his secretary of state announce that "Assad must go." He's ordered humanitarian supplies for the rebels—as well as "non-lethal" items like night-vision goggles and communications gear that have military uses.
He's getting plenty of encouragement from the "how long do we have to wait for a new war?" caucus. Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., have been talking up military force. The Washington Post has endorsed it.
They may be pushing an open door. Doyle McManus reports in the Los Angeles Times that the administration "is already committed to helping Assad fall. It's merely looking for the least violent, lowest cost way to get there." Having called for Assad's departure, Obama would look like a chump to let him stay in office, killing his people.
With the Iraq war still a painful memory and the Afghanistan war dragging on, the president will be careful to avoid sending large numbers of ground troops. The assumption is that air power will be enough for most of our goals.
But there are no guarantees. As Daalder has pointed out, Syria has better air defenses and a better military than Libya had. It can expect help from Iran. And if bombs and missiles are not enough, what then?
Aw, c'mon. You know the answer.
Steve Chapman blogs daily at newsblogs.chicagotribune.com/steve_chapman.