Confusion reigned Monday among U.N. and NATO nations about who’s in charge of the multi-country attack against Libya, even as an international coalition continued air strikes against Moammar Gadhafi's forces.
President Barack Obama’s White House hasn’t definitively addressed that essential issue about an operation that has cost the United States well more than $100 million, and is increasingly rapidly. Other questions looming:
- Are the United States and its allies attacking Libya to save the country’s citizens from slaughter at the hands of their leader Gadhafi, as the U.N. resolution endorsing the enforcement of the no-fly zone called for, or are they ultimately trying to push him out of power? That oust-Gadhafi question resonates with echoes of previous statements from both Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton that the ruthless dictator must go. And how do those messages mesh with a top admiral’s statement that Gadhafi could remain in power?
- How, and when, will the United States hand off leadership of the military attack to other countries?
- What is the potential for this to become a U.S. police action and/or extended involvement like that in Iraq and Afghanistan?
Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Sunday that the United States
anticipates giving control of the military campaign soon to a coalition, probably headed by either the French and the British or NATO. That campaign, which the U.N. resolution approved Thursday night, opened on Saturday with U.S. and British naval vessels launching 110 Tomahawk cruise missiles, which cost an at least a half-million dollars apiece (some estimates range as high as $1.2 million), at Libyan military installations. The allied attack, dubbed “Operation Odyssey Dawn,” also including French jets, continued Sunday and today with more missiles and U.S. jets involved.
Obama took time during his South American trip Monday to address the issue at a news conference in Chile, where he stated that U.S. policy remains “ that Gadhafi needs to go. We have got a wide range of tools in addition to our military effort to support that policy.”
Obama said those non-ordnance weapons include economic sanctions and freezing assets. Obama said removing Gadhafi is not the military's mission. A combination of other measures including United Nations sanctions designed to isolate the Libyan leader are the correct approach to hastening his fall, Obama said, according to The Associated Press.
But a half a world away, NATO members voiced confusion and exasperation about who’s in charge of the campaign as they met Monday in Brussels to work out their own involvement in the no-fly zone campaign, The New York Times reported. NATO approved plans on Sunday to help enforce a UN arms embargo against Libya, but the members can’t agree on how to proceed on either that or the no-fly zone, the Times reported.
British Prime Minister David Cameron said NATO would become responsible for the no-fly zone. But France objected, with Foreign Minister Alain Juppé saying on Monday that “the Arab League does not wish the operation to be entirely placed under NATO responsibility. It isn’t NATO which has taken the initiative up to now,” the Times reported.
Turkey, a NATO member also involved in the Brussels meeting, didn’t want to use force in Libya in the first place, and its representatives still are riled about being left out of a Paris meeting on Saturday, the Times reported. But Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, denied that his country is against NATO participation, saying instead that it merely wants to make sure the campaign is short and doesn’t turn into an occupation, the Times reported.
Meanwhile, in the United States, as Defense Secretary Gates discussed the eventual U.S. hand-off of leadership for the offensive on Sunday, he said, “We agreed to use our unique capabilities and the breadth of those capabilities at the front of this process, and then we expected in a matter of days to be able to turn over the primary responsibility to others. We will continue to support the coalition, we will be a member of the coalition, we will have a military role in the coalition, but we will not have the preeminent role."
But the role of Arab nations is unclear. Gates acknowledged that there is "some sensitivity on the part of the Arab League to being seen to be operating under a NATO umbrella."
Asked whether the United States and its allies should go after Gadhafi, Gates said they should stick to the U.N. Security Council’s resolution, which focuses on preventing Gadhafi from murdering his own people. "It is unwise to set as specific goals things that you may or may not be able to achieve."
Meanwhile, Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, acknowledged the mission’s uncertainty. “There have been lots of options which have been discussed, but I think it’s very uncertain how this ends,” he told CNBC. “I think circumstances will drive where this goes in the future.”
Addressing the issue of whether Gadhafi can remain in power, he said, “That’s certainly, potentially, one outcome. I wouldn’t go so far as to say we’re not going to have airplanes over Libya in three or four days.”
To be sure, the allied military isn’t going to cry if Gadhafi becomes part of collateral damage — one of his sons already is claimed to be dead. “If he happens to be in a place, if he’s inspecting a surface-to-air missile site, and we don’t have any idea if he’s there or not, then . . . ” Vice Adm. William Gortney told reporters Sunday. He didn’t finish the sentence.
In leading and carrying out the initial attacks, the United States appears to have exceeded Obama’s declaration that the country has a narrow mission and will play only a supporting role.
But National Security adviser Thomas Donilon said the U.S. military will fade to the background soon, providing jamming of Libyan government communications, surveillance and intelligence, and refueling for coalition aircraft.
Many experts suspect that the United States eventually will go after Gadhafi. In the end, the White House won’t accept merely halting the attacks from Gadhafi’s military, says Andrew Bacevich, author of “The Limits of Power: The End of the American Exceptionalism” and a professor at Boston University.
“I would expect that sort of partial success would lead to calls for expanding operations in order to achieve regime change,” he told The Washington Post.
And Thomas Donnelly, director of the Center for Defense Studies at the American Enterprise Institute, says it’s unwise for U.S. officials to declare narrow goals.
“Low-balling expectations is probably penny-wise and pound-foolish,” he told The Post. “The worst thing you can do, like Afghanistan or like Iraq, is say that this is going to be short, sweet and easy. That’s a possibility, even a probability. But it’s not a certainty.”
Many conservatives criticize Obama for acting too slowly in unleashing the military response on Libya, while many liberals criticize him for acting at all, saying the Constitution requires him to gain congressional approval first.
Rep. Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio, is one of the liberals holding that view. "A commitment of U.S. forces should not occur under these circumstances," he wrote in a letter to House Speaker John Boehner, The Washington Times reports.
"As then-Senator Obama wrote, in 2007, 'The president does not have the power under the Constitution to unilaterally authorize a military attack in a situation that does not involve stopping an actual or imminent threat to the nation.' I agree."
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