WASHINGTON -- When Americans think about the "little war" in Libya at all, they tend to downplay both its importance and President Obama's tactics.
Talk about confusion! Those super-aggressive conservatives who applauded George W's flaming march into Iraq and Afghanistan now roundly refuse to show any approval for Barack Obama's carefully modulated attentions to the Libyan revolution.
Conservatives think our support for the rebels is overdone and bound to fail. Libya is not within our strategic boundaries, and we have no serious interests in that strange desert land.
Critics from all sides keep saying that we still have little knowledge of the so-called "protesters" or "dissidents." They are anti-Gadhafi, that's for sure, but even if we were to support the brave young men and women fighting to defend Benghazi and a handful of other port cities along the Mediterranean coast, we're not sure exactly who ... they ... are!
That's the kind of war you get when you leave things up to the Democrats and the liberals! these conservatives insist. To the contrary, look how neatly Iraq and Afghanistan are tied up by the Republicans. But then, they always knew -- way, way before these modern wars nearly cost us our international financial legitimacy -- that Obama was a leader we could ill afford.
Now those words represent, of course, the ferocity of the conservative cause, slightly edited. But is there not another interpretation of the Obama doctrine, in particular with regard to Libya? Because it is in that desert land, rich in oil and poor in knowledge of the rest of the world, that Barack Obama, a mystery even to many Americans, has perhaps best revealed the stuff of which he is made. And it is a revelation that finds him very different from the interpretation of his critics.
Let us first listen to one of Europe's best analysts and wise men, the French philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy, who just returned from a comprehensive tour through the Libyan fighting zones, and whose findings are very different from those of the naysayers.
Writing in the Financial Times, Levy said his trip "leads me to challenge more strongly than ever the oddly defeatist declarations that have emanated from Washington, London and Paris in recent weeks." The supposedly disorganized and incapable protesters that the "revolution" depends upon? He found "something very different: a rebellion whose objective is Tripoli; tribal chiefs for whom Libyan unity has become an imperative; officers perfectly aware of the fact that this goal is attainable only in close coordination with NATO's operational commanders.
"Once again, this is nothing like the disorder, the improvisation and the 'tribal mindset' we keep hearing about."
Let us think back for a moment over the amazing things that have happened in Libya the last few months.
When the Middle East exploded into a new "Arab Awakening" this winter and spring, the last place the world expected to join the march for change was Libya. Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Syria, even Jordan -- yes! But the Libyans have always seemed beyond the pale of modernization. For the most part, they were totally unworldly desert people, and they somehow didn't mind being ruled by the madcap Gadhafi -- or at least they didn't show it.
Libya has had a strange history, one of upheaval and division healed, only imperfectly, by strongmen. After the end of the Ottoman Empire in the early 20th century, the piece of land that would become Libya broke down into mainly Tripolitania in the west and Cyrenaica to the east. Indeed, there was no "Libya" at all before its creation by the United Nations on Dec. 24, 1951.
The Senussi tribal kings were supposed to rule the country, but soon there was a little revolution. In 1969, a handsome young colonel, Moammar Gadhafi, overthrew King Idris. If he seemed odd to foreigners who did not know the area, he was directly in the line of Mussolini, when the Italians ruled Libya from 1913 to 1943, and of the truly great Libyan liberator, Sheikh Omar al-Mukhtar, who was hanged before 20,000 tribesmen in 1931 and whose name is the rallying cry of today's protesters.
In a greater sense, one can see that today's rebellion is very much in the line of earlier historical revolts.
President Obama's part in all of this, however, is far from that of any inspirer of revolution. Rather, he has played the role of wise brother trying to keep his family from going too far.
He is very much on the side of the protesters, but he has two wars already (Iraq, Afghanistan), and more on the waiting list (Yemen, Somalia, Jordan, and maybe others). The American public is sick of the whole business. Yet he wants to help the Libyans.
So he has devised a pattern of action much like Gen. Wesley Clark's for Kosovo in 1997: We would be clear about our sympathies, but would only take indirect part. We would use our bombers, supply the rebel soldiers -- and above all, give the French the leadership role.
Indeed, why not? The French love it -- and we don't want it.
So that is where we are now, and it ain't bad. For those who don't like Barack Obama's terms, I suggest you put forward something wiser.