How can the administration confirm that the “responsibility to protect” is a dubious pretext for military action in Libya rather than a legitimate justification? By making absolutely clear that it doesn’t want Libya to serve as any sort of precedent:

The U.S. intervention in Libya won’t set a precedent for taking action elsewhere in the region where pro-democracy protests are challenging governments, Denis McDonough, deputy national security adviser, said

Each case is “unique,” McDonough said at a briefing. Libya “doesn’t set a precedent that should create any expectations” for other interventions in the Mideast or elsewhere.

This is a belated bid to try to minimize the damage that the Libyan war could do by encouraging expectations of outside support in other countries, and it may be intended to contradict Sarkozy’s crazy rhetoric that Libyan intervention does set a precedent and should create expectations elsewhere.

It’s important to remember that it was exactly for its deterrent and precedent-setting effects that many humanitarian interventionists, including officials in the White House, wanted to take action in Libya. This was what made the Libyan crisis so much more important and required a prompt U.S. response. Now that the U.S. has intervened, there is a concerted effort from the administration to deny all of this, lower expectations, and tell everyone that the supposed norm-enforcing intervention is a one-time thing. Arguments that intervention would deter crackdowns elsewhere and keep the Arab Spring alive were all right for pushing the U.S. into war, but suddenly don’t matter quite so much to the administration now that the war has started.

In an excellent argument against humanitarian interventions, Damir Marusic points out a key flaw in the liberal interventionist position:

Nevertheless, even a stated intent to massacre an opposition in defeat shouldn’t be cause enough for military intervention. In the case of Libya, intervening as we have before Qaddafi did his worst leaves us justifying our policy with all sort of weak, second-order arguments about Qaddafi’s threat to his neighbors and to the Arab Spring.

As we are seeing now, the administration doesn’t put much stock in these other arguments, and it clearly wants to limit the extent of its commitments now that it has foolishly plunged into Libya. The effect of deterring dictators from killing protesters was not going to happen anyway, but the administration has confirmed that it never believed this. The administration line is that the Libyan crisis was so exceptional that it required a special response. The only problem is that there isn’t very much exceptional about the conflict in Libya. It is not terribly different from many of the other internal conflicts around the world, which forces us to ask once again why the U.S. is involved in Libya’s civil war.