Let's imagine that all goes well in Libya. The rebels, protected by air strikes, recapture lost territory and sweep into Tripoli. Moammar Gadhafi and his sons one way or the other disappear.
Leaders propose a democratic and secular constitution that voters overwhelmingly approve. The first act of the duly elected government is to issue a proclamation of thanks and friendship to the United States, Britain, France and others who prevented Gadhafi's mass slaughter.
Well, we can all dream, can't we?
But in the cold light of day, none of these happy eventualities seems very likely. As one who hopes for success in this enterprise, I am dismayed by the contradictions in the course we are following.
Some three weeks ago, Barack Obama said Gadhafi "must go." But the United Nations Security Council resolution under which we are acting stops well short of this goal.
Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen confirmed that Gadhafi may remain in power indefinitely. National Security Council staffer Ben Rhodes said, "It's not about regime change."
If not, then the purported purpose of the operation, to "protect civilians," could be of unlimited duration. Libya might well be divided between a Gadhafi regime in the west around Tripoli and a rebel regime in the east around Benghazi.
Maintaining the existence of the latter will likely require military force. Obama has conceded that the United States is currently in command of operations, but says that command will be handed off to others in "days, not weeks."
But news reports make it clear that the overwhelming majority of military forces in action are American. Putting a British or French officer in command will not change that. And putting U.S. forces under foreign command might weaken support for the enterprise here at home.
Obama's policy is reminiscent of the old saying that a camel is a horse designed by committee. The policy satisfies advocates of humanitarian intervention, like the National Security Council's Samantha Power, who remember Bill Clinton's regret that he didn't intervene to stop the slaughter in Rwanda.
Unfortunately, in order to satisfy those who oppose anything smacking of unilateralism, it took time to get the U.N. Security Council to act, so that we missed the moment when it seemed possible that recognition of a rebel government or imposition of a no-fly zone would topple Gadhafi.
That delay gave him time to launch a counterattack that made him strong enough to withstand the limited military action that could get multilateral approval.