This was Col. Moammar Gadhafi's Libya - and the United States and NATO responded with airpower retaliation, a sustained campaign with the stated goal of protecting the people from their government.
This was President Bashar al-Assad's Syria - and the United States and NATO responded with some words of disapproval, dutifully dispensed by spokespersons.
So it is that when the historians take the measure of the wave of pro-democracy rebellion now rolling across the autocratic Arab world, they find cause to pause as they note the similarities in the civilian massacres in Libya and Syria and the dissimilar responses of the U.S., NATO and indeed the United Nations.
It was just four weeks ago, after Gadhafi vowed to show "no mercy" against protesting Libyans, that President Obama explained his decision to mount an airpower campaign (with NATO).
Experts were quick to call it a doctrine, in large part because Obama had carefully linked America's national interests and fundamental values.
After noting America's "unique role as an anchor of global security and as an advocate for human freedom," he had pointedly said: "But when our interests and values are at stake, we have a responsibility to act." At their core, those values are that people should have freedom of speech and the right to vote. And should not be massacred when they exercise those rights.
But this past week in Syria, that is what happened. Assad ordered the military to brutally crush dissenters in the city of Dara'a who sought to exercise their basic human rights. When the shooting had stopped, scores of bodies lay in the streets. In five weeks of protest, more than 400 have reportedly been killed.
Yet, the response of the United States and NATO has been verbal condemnation, mixed with hopeful suggestions that Assad may yet execute an about face and reform his ways. A 45-year-old ophthalmologist by training, Assad is still learning the craft of autocracy, having inherited his job after his father's decades of harsh rule that included killing at least 10,000 in a failed revolt in 1982. Yet recently, the younger Assad had once promised to end the national emergency law that has stifled citizen rights ever since his father's reign.
Obama's new press secretary, Jay Carney, who has seemed to bring much needed improvement and clarity to the job, found himself tested Monday when he was asked to explain Obama's view of just what the difference was between the civilian slaughter in Libya and the civilian slaughter in Syria.
"I would simply say that Libya was ... a unique situation," Carney began. "We had large portions of the country that were out of the control of Moammar Gadhafi. We had a Gadhafi regime that was moving against its own people in a coordinated military fashion and was about to assault a very large city on the promise that it would show ... 'no mercy.' We had an international consensus to act. We had the support of the Arab League to act in a multilateral fashion. And we supported that move to save the lives of the people of Misrata and elsewhere in Libya."
Left crucially unstated was the key reason there is no plan to mount a Libya-styled military airpower effort against Assad's forces for the lives they ended of the people of Dara'a.
At least three significant players in the region hope Assad's regime will remain. Saudi Arabia and Turkey are two of them. The third is Israel. (No, you don't need an ophthalmologist, I said Israel.) The reason: There is no certainty about what could replace Assad. A pro-al Qaida, militant Islamic regime is not unthinkable. Just unacceptable.
No wonder Carney repeatedly offered reporters the guidance that "targeted sanctions" (which presumably could be aimed at individuals as well as the nation of Syria) are being discussed internationally.
More sanctions, yes. Airpower, no.
One of the crucial skills of a savvy White House spokesperson is knowing some truths must never be spoken. Not even in defense of a doctrine that seems short-lived.
Martin Schram writes political analysis for Scripps Howard News Service.