In the aftermath of September 11, President George W. Bush launched the War on Terror. It was the first war in U.S. history—declared or undeclared—against a phenomenon, a method, or an emotion, rather than against a state (or a subgroup such as the Barbary pirates or the Viet Cong). The concept evoked Xerxes’ War on the Waters of Hellespont.
In his Inaugural Address President Barack Obama made the proceedings more surreal by stating that the enemy was “a far-reaching network of violence and hatred.” On his instructions, in March 2009 the war was formally renamed Overseas Contingency Operation (OCO).
It was semantically befitting for the Commander in Chief to describe the latest intervention as a “time-limited, scope-limited kinetic military action” for which “our military . . . is being volunteered by others to carry out missions that are important not only to us, but are important internationally.” For a country in her tenth year of resolutely fighting the Overseas Contingency Operation Against a Far-Reaching Network of Violence and Hatred, joining the fray in Libya does not seem all that absurd. Colonel Qaddafi makes an unconvincing Hitler-of-the-Day, but at least he is a man, not a metaphysical concept.
Libya combines the worst elements of several Western military interventions over the past decade and a half. A notable difference is that...