Morality the first casualty in struggle for democracy
What price humanitarian intervention? William Hague doesn't know. Asked on Newsnight how much the Libya operation was costing the British taxpayer, the Foreign Secretary responded that he didn't have that information. Indeed, he wasn't sure that the sums had been added up yet.
Taxpayers could rest assured, however, he went on to say, that whatever resources turned out to be needed to bring the Libyan campaign to a satisfactory conclusion would be provided.
Has anyone ever heard a Government minister saying a thing like that about ending fuel poverty among pensioners? Or hiring more classroom assistants or cancelling the closure of libraries?
The casual confidence with which Hague offered his open-ended commitment exemplified the extent to which the doctrine of humanitarian intervention has become accepted across the political mainstream as a moral imperative.
If any member of the Commons dissented from the implied spending priorities, it's been so sotto voce as to be inaudible. Nor has there been a hubbub of media discussion of the issue, or even acknowledgement that there is an issue here to be discussed.
It is simply assumed that the moral argument is obvious and obviously trumps all other considerations, including the impact on the public finances.
The moral purpose is set out in UN resolution 1973: 'to protect... civilian populated areas under threatened attack'.
Nato bombing of civilian targets in Tripoli suggests that the mission has gone a considerable distance beyond this mandate. But the difficulty with the mission itself is more fundamental and goes farther back.
More than 160 years ago, Alexis de Tocqueville noted that the slaughter of native Americans was being carried out 'with singular felicity, tranquillity, legally, philanthropically, without the shedding of blood and without violating a single great principle of morality in the eyes of the world'. Never, he suggested, had a people been systematically destroyed with such 'respect for the laws of humanity'.
The white man, according to the tale he told himself, was nobly intent on fulfilling his manifest destiny of bringing the light of Christian learning to people groaning in the darkness of savage ignorance.
So it has ever been for great powers or dominant groups out to impose their will and expand their interests at the expense of others.
At the tail-end of the 19th century, Leopold of the Belgians was festooned with humanitarian awards - he was leader of a world anti-slavery organisation even as his forces mutilated and massacred to seize and keep control of the resource-rich Congo. The Belgians enslaved the Congo to save its people from 'Arab slavers'.
In the case of the Congo, as in scores of other unfortunate regions since, the reality is not so much concealed as contained within an 'ideological state apparatus' sustained by the unspoken assumptions of media coverage as much as by direct political propaganda.
Cameron, Obama and Sarkozy all affect distress at the plight of Libyan democrats even as they shrug their shoulders at the repression of pro-democracy campaigners in, for example, Bahrain.
The 4am onslaught by hundreds of heavily armed riot police on unarmed sleeping protesters trying to emulate the democrats of Tahir Square made a few ripples, but evoked no meaningful response from Western political elites. Nor did the arrest, beating and imprisonment of doctors who had dared treat the victims.
No complaint greeted the intervention in support of the Bahraini dictatorship by Saudi Arabian troops as they rolled across the border on US-supplied tanks and armoured personnel carriers to put down the rising democracy.
Last October, Obama jubilantly endorsed the sale of $60bn-worth of arms to the Saudi regime - the biggest arms deal in history. Bahrain provides the headquarters of the US Fifth Fleet.
Neither of these neighbouring dictatorships need fear a withdrawal of Western goodwill anytime soon.
No need for the al-Saleh tyranny in Yemen to worry, either, about reaction to its series of massacres of pro-democracy demonstrators.
Students at Sanaa University have been gunned down. Fifty-two people died in a single assault on a protest in Sanaa city centre.
Not only has there been no humanitarian intervention, US special forces continue to operate in the country in support of the regime.
One of the functions of the Libyan intervention has been to enable Western governments and their media outriders to maintain that they are driven by a desire to assist in the cultivation of democracy in the region - even as they support and arm despots whom the mass of the people risk all to overthrow.