Let's say we did go into Libya primarily for humanitarian purposes. Let's say that Moammar Gadhafi's pledge to show "no mercy" as his troops were bearing down on Benghazi civilians was not simply a metaphorical flourish from a well-known sociopath, but a genuine warning.
And let's agree, while we're being agreeable, that whatever Gadhafi did intend on doing there, he can't do now because of the presence of American and French and British missiles and bombers. We can even say, as Barack Obama says, we might well have pre-empted a massacre.
But here's the problem: Even if we agree on all that, it still leads us to the exact same place as if we had gone into Libya for no reason other than to finally get rid of Gadhafi.
If this is a humanitarian mission, we can't leave until Gadhafi is gone. That much is obvious. Pull out the missiles and the bombs, and if Gadhafi's still there, he can do whatever he likes to whomever he pleases.
If this is a tactical mission — reinforcing the Arab Spring by springing Libyans from 40 years of tyranny — we can't leave until Libyans are, in fact, free of Gadhafi because otherwise the mission would be, yes, unaccomplished.
There is no realistic Plan B. Now that we're there, Gadhafi has to go, which leads to the obvious question: How do we ensure that he leaves?
The latest reports are that the CIA is in Libya. We may not have boots on the ground, but we do have whatever kind of footwear spies favor during kinetic military actions. Meanwhile, the no-fly zone/no-drive zone policy — which immediately became a crush-Gadhafi's-military-assets campaign — has already begun to play the key role in what looks increasingly like a civil war.
Here's the quick armchair overview: Where we bomb, the rebels advance. When the bombing stops, Gadhafi's troops advance and the rebels retreat.
New York Times reporter C.J. Chivers, who's on the ground with the rebels, describes a "rudderless" retreat of poorly trained, poorly armed fighters in cars and trucks they've driven to the front. He writes of one group, in retreat, who "were chanting 'God is great' and waving assault rifles." When a single artillery shell landed a few hundred yards away, they took to their vehicles and raced away.
In The New Yorker, veteran war correspondent Jon Lee Anderson writes of his time with the rebels and how long they are on enthusiasm and how short on training. They're largely composed, he says, of protesters gone to war.
"For many of them," he writes, "the fighting consists largely of a performance — dancing and singing and firing into the air — and of racing around in improvised gunwagons." Anderson says many rebels were at first "outraged" when actual artillery was used against them. Of course, many have died.
Most Americans know little about the complexities of Libya's tribal society, just as we once knew little about Shia and Sunni Muslims. According to the experts, Gadhafi's loyal troops are militias drawn from three tribes and headed by two of his sons. The allies' game plan seems to be that by bombing and by squeezing Libya's oil economy, Gadhafi's loyalists won't remain loyal for long.
As Obama put it, they'll understand "the noose is tightening, that their days are probably numbered, and they are going to have to think through what their next steps are."
The headlines, though, are of Gadhafi's forces gaining and rebels retreating and of arguments among the no-zone enforcers about whether to arm the rebels — whatever the controlling U.N. resolution might suggest.
If Gadhafi doesn't leave soon, how do we not arm the rebels? How else do they win? How else do we leave? If we arm them, we must also train them. It's unlikely Americans would be at the center of the operation, but the effect would be the same — an armed force, of which we know little, that we're militarily supporting.
Back home, Republicans seem split on how much to cheer any Obama-led event. Most Democrats seem to be saying as little as possible. The liberal interventionists and the neo-cons are the cheerleaders here. Bill Kristol, editor of the Weekly Standard, went on Fox News and called Obama a "born-again neo-con."
"What's the joke — they told me if I voted for McCain, we'd be going to war in a third Muslim country?" Kristol said. "I voted for McCain and we're doing it."
We just have to hope that someone who's not Gadhafi gets the last laugh.
Mike Littwin is a columnist for The Denver Post.