WASHINGTON - The U.S.-led attacks against an autocrat in oil-rich Libya have opened the Obama administration to questions about why it's holding back from more robust support for opposition forces challenging other dictators.
What is the difference, some have asked, between the situation in Libya and the uprisings in Bahrain, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Syria and even sub-Saharan African nations such as Ivory Coast?
The bombardment by Washington and its allies of the air defenses and troops of Moammar Gadhafi, unquestionably an international pariah, was motivated by a desire to prevent a possible slaughter of rebels fighting to end his erratic 42-year reign. There's hope among U.S. and allied leaders that the anti-government forces will move toward democracy as they appear to be after revolutions in neighboring Egypt and Tunisia
But the military intervention begs many questions and illustrates once again the stark inconsistences in an American foreign policy that tries to balance democratic ideals against pragmatic national interests.
The easy but unsatisfactory answer is that the United Nations called for action against Libya as did that nation's neighbors in the Arab League. And the U.N. also is already deeply involved in Ivory Coast where the internationally recognized president is calling for U.N. peacekeepers to use force against incumbent leader Laurent Gbagbo, who has attacked civilians and refuses to cede power.
Mark Quarterman, of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said Obama was engaged in the "art of the possible" in Libya.
"The ability to reach a consensus on action in Libya, in the face of potential crimes against humanity," he said in a recent commentary, "is not illegitimate simply because a similar consensus cannot be reached in other circumstances."
Nicholas R. Burns, a Harvard professor who was in the upper reaches of State Department decision making for much of the past two decades, said Obama had no choice.
"With Benghazi being overrun by Gadhafi, the president had to use force," he said. "It has been done effectively. It saved those people and gave new life to the rebels."
But why not act on behalf of anti-government forces that have come under attack as they challenge entrenched autocracies in Yemen and Bahrain?
"We can't be antiseptically consistent," Burns said. "The United States has huge national security interests in those countries."
And that's where the pragmatism over national security interests comes in.
The U.S. 5th Fleet base in Bahrain allows the United States to project military power in the Persian Gulf, Red Sea and Indian Ocean. In Yemen, the long-time president works closely with Washington in the fight against al-Qaida in the Arabian peninsula.
Also at work are fears of Iran - in Bahrain and its mentor and neighbor Saudi Arabia, the world's biggest oil producer. The monarchies in both countries are deeply distrustful of their Shiite Muslim populations who are suspected of being under the influence of Iran. Arab nations dread an expansion of Iran's outsized political and military ambitions in the Gulf.
Burns, whose State Department tenure included the administration of President Bill Clinton, also recalls that many of the foreign policy decision makers now working for Obama have deep and troubling memories of the mass killings in Bosnia, Rwanda and Kosovo. Among that group are the former first lady and now Secretary of State, Hillary Rodham Clinton, and current U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice, a key Africa adviser for President Clinton.
History argues forcefully that U.S. intervention could have prevented the Rwanda massacres and limited the carnage in the Balkans. That would explain pressure Obama reportedly felt from both Hillary Clinton and Rice as the U.N. resolution for a no-fly zone and other action in Libyan started coming together last week.
Beyond that, the American relationship with Israel, Washington's closest Mideast ally, always hangs above U.S. decision making in the region. Any final peace agreement among the Jewish state and its Arab neighbors depends heavily on both Saudi Arabia and Syria. Saudi endorsement of any peace plan would carry huge weight with other Arab nations.
That's especially important after the revolution that swept Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak from power. He had served as a U.S. proxy in attempts to arrange peace between Israel and the Palestinians and the wider Middle East.
What's more, Syria is still seen - despite its close ties with Iran and its support for Hezbollah forces in Lebanon - as a potential peace partner. It is desperate to win back control of the Golan Heights, captured by Israel in the 1967 war. That reality keeps Damascus in play as one of the Arab rejectionist states that could be coaxed into a peace deal.
Obama has worked assiduously since taking office to repair the U.S. image in the world, an image that was badly damaged by Washington's invasion of Iraq and its long war to defeat the Taliban militancy and its al-Qaida allies in Afghanistan and in the border region with Pakistan.
As he stepped into the Libyan conflict in a major way, Obama was eager to keep America's profile as low as possible. He has routinely said, as has Clinton, that the operation in Libya would soon be ceded to NATO control. The White House has no interest in attaching itself deeply to yet another conflict in a Muslim country.
That's easier said than done.