Anyone looking for principle and logic in the attack on Moammar Gadhafi's tyrannical regime will be disappointed. President Obama and his advisers should acknowledge the obvious truth: They are reacting to the revolutionary fervor in the Arab world with the arbitrary "realism" that is a superpower's prerogative.
Faced with an armed uprising by democracy-seeking rebels, Gadhafi threatened to turn all of Libya into a charnel house. The United States and its allies responded with overwhelming military force that is clearly intended to cripple the government and boost the revolt's chances of success.
Thus begins our third concurrent Middle East war. No one has the slightest idea how, or when, this one will end.
I have to admit that I, too, would have found it hard to stand idly by as Gadhafi drenched the streets of Benghazi in blood. But what makes it any easier to watch other despots do the same thing?
In Yemen, forces loyal to dictator Ali Abdullah Saleh have slaughtered dozens of defenseless protesters seeking democratic reform. Saleh, who has ruled the nation for 33 years, clings desperately to power despite having been abandoned by many of his political supporters and some of his generals. He has shown nothing but defiance. "Every day we hear a statement from Obama saying, 'Egypt you can't do this, Tunisia don't do that,'" Saleh said in a speech earlier this month. "Are you president of the United States, or president of the world?"
But there has been no U.S. military intervention. Saleh has been seen as a valuable ally in the fight against al-Qaida, which has perhaps its most active - and potentially dangerous - base in Yemen. Attacks against the United States have been planned and staged there. Saleh, therefore, is a useful tyrant. He gets nudges, not bombs.
In Bahrain, the ruling al-Khalifa royal family has responded to peaceful demonstrations with violent repression. While the world's attention was focused on the unfolding tragedy in Japan and the looming tragedy in Libya, Bahrain's leaders brutally cleared Pearl Square of its protest encampment and even destroyed the towering monument that had become the pro-democracy movement's most powerful symbol.
But for Bahrain, too, we have polite words rather than decisive action. Why? Because the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet is based there, astride the Persian Gulf shipping lanes through which 40 percent of the world's seaborne oil shipments must pass. The base gives the United States a way to counter Iran's growing power.
Also, the al-Khalifas are close allies of the Saudi royals, who are desperate to keep the protests in Bahrain from spilling over into the nearby kingdom. The Saudi rulers sent troops to help crush the Bahrain demonstrations and have banned any kind of pro-democracy agitation at home.
Why is Libya so different? Basically, because the dictators of Yemen, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia - also Jordan and the Persian Gulf sheikdoms, for that matter - are friendly, cooperative and useful. Gadhafi is not.
You will recall Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's initial assessment that the regime of Egyptian strongman Hosni Mubarak was "stable." We knew that Mubarak was brutal and corrupt, but only when it became clear that his hold on power was slipping did the administration position itself on the right side of history.
In explaining why the U.S. would join in establishing the Libyan no-fly zone, which immediately became much more, Obama tied himself in rhetorical knots. If Gadhafi were to commit atrocities against his people, Obama said, "The entire region could be destabilized, endangering many of our allies and partners." Well, duh. As he no doubt has noticed, the region is already destabilized. Friendly regimes are already being threatened, but not by Gadhafi. They are endangered by the democratic aspirations of their own people.
Gadhafi is crazy and evil; obviously, he wasn't going to listen to our advice about democracy. The world would be fortunate to be rid of him. But war in Libya is justifiable only if we are going to hold compliant dictators to the same standard we set for defiant ones. If not, then please spare us all the homilies about universal rights and freedoms. We'll know this isn't about justice, it's about power.
Contact Eugene Robinson, a syndicated columnist, at firstname.lastname@example.org.