'If it were done when 'tis done, then 'twere well it were done quickly.' Macbeth's famous line before he kills Duncan came to mind last week, when US President Barack Obama belatedly changed his mind about military intervention in Libya. Like Obama, Macbeth fervently hopes that this blow might be the be-all and the end-all... But in these cases ... we but teach/ Bloody instructions, which, being taught, return/ To plague the inventor: this even-handed justice/ Commends the ingredients of our poison'd chalice/ To our own lips.
The president has been more Hamlet than Macbeth since the beginning of the revolutionary crisis that has swept the desert lands of North Africa and the West Asia. To act or not to act? That has been the question. The results of his indecision have been unhappy. Hosni Mubarak, for so long an American ally, has been overthrown in Egypt. Muammar Gaddafi, the erstwhile sponsor of terrorism so foolishly rehabilitated by the West just four years ago, has - until now - lived to fight another day in Libya. Meanwhile, in Bahrain, another insurrection is being quelled with the help of Saudi Arabia - an American ally even more important than Libya.
Obama, a novice in foreign affairs, is a president without a strategy. Once a critic of American military intervention in West Asia, once a sceptic about the chances of democratising the region, he now finds himself with a poisoned chalice in each hand. In one, there are the dregs of the last administration's interventions: military commitments in Iraq and Afghanistan that he is eager to wind down. In the other is a freshly poured draught of his own making.
Make no mistake. Whatever the wording of the United Nations Security Council resolution, the United States is now at war with the Libyan government, and the aim of this war is the overthrow of Gaddafi. In the words of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton: "If you don't get him out and if you don't support the opposition and he stays in power, there's no telling what he will do." She doubtless remembers more clearly than Obama what happened in Bosnia, when her husband took years to approve effective military intervention. Had she been president, my guess is we'd have taken swifter action. But in this play, she's Lady Macbeth, urging Obama to get tough.
This was the right thing to do. Was. But it should have been done weeks ago, when it first became clear that Gaddafi, unlike Mubarak, was able and willing to unleash military force against his opponents. Now, with loyalist forces approaching the rebel stronghold of Benghazi, it may well be too late. It certainly seems unlikely that an exclusively aerial intervention in Libya's civil war can topple the mad dog of Tripoli. And even if it's still possible to tip the balance in favour of the rebels, then what? When the news of the no-fly zone reached Benghazi last week, it was relayed from mosque loudspeakers, and the crowds responded with cries of "Allahu Akbar!" not "God bless America!" Significantly, the rebel spokesman quoted by The New York Times was an imam.
I wish I could believe the National Security Council is now presenting the president with a better set of scenarios than it put on the table when this crisis began in Tunisia. As I've said from the outset, a peaceful transition to Western-style democracy in the Arab world is, of all the scenarios, the least probable. The more likely outcomes are (a) 1848-style restorations of the old regimes; (b) a descent into protracted civil wars; (c) Islamist takeovers; (d) a regionwide Sunni-Shia conflict. By the way, (b), (c), and (d) are not necessarily mutually exclusive. They may be a sequence of events.
Fortune has not smiled on President Obama in the role of hesitant Hamlet. But better luck is the last thing actors expect when they play Macbeth.
Niall Ferguson is a British historian.
His latest book is Civilization:
The West and the Rest
The views expressed by the author are personal