According to the Washington Post, in a briefing for reporters traveling with President Obama in South America, National Security Adviser Thomas E. Donilon said that command of the Libyan conflict would be transferred, possibly to NATO, in “days, not weeks,” and described the goal of the first phase of the mission as “crystal clear.”
“The focus right now was on a direct threat to citizens” of Libya, he said, “in response to requests” from Arab governments and under last week’s UN resolution authorizing member states to take “all necessary measures” to protect civilians. “This is a limited-in-scope-duration-and-task operation,” Donilon said of the U.S. role. U.S. forces will quickly move into the background, he said, providing jamming of Libyan government communications, surveillance and intelligence, and refueling for coalition aircraft.
Then we read this:
Donilon and [Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Mike] Mullen said that while the short-term goal was to remove the threat to Libyan civilians, other efforts would bring about Gaddafi’s increasing international isolation, including previously adopted economic sanctions, an arms embargo, and a travel ban on members of his family and government, and help persuade his remaining supporters in Libya to abandon him.
But they stressed that while Obama has called for Gaddafi to step down, unseating him is not an objective of the military operation.
This whole account is problematic. For one thing, the mission is not “crystal clear,” as anyone who watched yesterday’s interviews with Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, can tell you. What we have right now is, in Abe’s words, “mission murk.” Second, to stress that this operation is limited in scope and that America will move in the background soon sends the wrong signals to just about everyone, including Qaddafi and the rebels. A country shouldn’t enter a conflict and, immediately upon entering it, emphasize the limited nature of its involvement. That can change, based on unforeseeable circumstances; and it sends a message in bright, neon lights: Our will is weak, our commitment limited, our attention span short.
As for the statement that unseating Qaddafi is not an objective of military operations: This can only increase the odds that Qaddafi stays in power. Taking regime decapitation off the table removes a powerful incentive for Qaddafi to leave sooner rather than later.
And whether the president fully grasps this or not, it’s now imperative that Qaddafi relinquish power, in part for the sake of the Libyan people and in part to protect the prestige and reputation of the United States. The president has already said Qaddafi “must go.” Having joined a military operation against him, the stakes are now ten-fold what they were. Yet Obama seems to view his chief responsibility as reassuring the world of American reticence rather than achieving military success.
This is not the mindset one would hope for from our commander in chief at the outset of a military conflict. He’s in it now; Obama can’t vote “present” in a war. The president better ensure we, rather than Qaddafi, prevail — and make no mistake, anything less than the ouster of Qaddafi is a loss for us.