When US President Barack Obama offered his rationale for supporting the UN-imposed no-fly zone over Libyan skies, he said: "We knew that if we waited one more day, Benghazi [...] could suffer a massacre that would have reverberated across the region and stained the conscience of the world."
To those who would, in coming days, criticise him for having stood idly by in the wake of repression elsewhere, he said: "It is true that America cannot use our military wherever repression occurs. And given the costs and risks of intervention, we must always measure our interests against the need for action. But that cannot be an argument for never acting on behalf of what's right. In this particular country, Libya, at this particular moment, we were faced with the prospect of violence on a horrific scale."
Obama's Libya speech was a remarkable balancing act between the unsentimental view of national interest and the passionate impulse of humanitarian intervention. The President announced that America may intervene occasionally when the two intersect — but deliberately left it vague, so as not to prejudge future crises. He returned to his favoured theme of the "false choice" — the rhetorical straw man of two extremes, which enables him always to counsel a reasonable third way. But he did not set policy, especially at a time when across the Middle East national interest criss-crosses with humanitarian catastrophes. Nor did he elaborate much on other forms of intervention — after all, isn't the choice between all-out war and standing idly by a false one?
The real question, as we witness turmoil engulf the entire region, is this, after all: how does one balance the nature of America's interest against the costs and risks of intervention? One cannot expect America to launch military strikes everywhere and all the time — but could American pressure and leadership be brought to bear elsewhere, when national interest is at stake and carnage is a real prospect?
Nowhere is this question more urgent than Syria — where a balance between interest and conscience, demands more than the perfunctory and inconsequential rhetoric that has so far characterised US (and indeed, European) reactions to Syria's brutal crackdown on peaceful protesters.