U.S. actions in Libya may speak louder than words

By Mary Beth Sheridan and Scott Wilson
Monday, March 21, 2011; 5:47 PM

PARIS - As international forces launched attacks against Libya on Saturday, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton struck a tone highly unusual in the annals of American military interventions: humility.

"We did not lead this," she told reporters.

But her modest words belied the far larger role the United States played as international forces began an open-ended assault on Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi's military capabilities. U.S. warships fired more than 110 Tomahawk missiles into Libyan territory to disable air-defense systems. And the French and British warplanes that began to enforce the emerging no-fly zone operate under U.S. command.

Vice Adm. Bill Gortney, director of the Joint Staff, described the U.S. role to reporters at the Pentagon: "We are on the leading edge of a coalition military operation."

The administration's mixed message reflects the challenge President Obama faces at home and abroad as he opens a third military front in a Muslim nation.

Obama has spent much of his first term seeking to repair U.S. relations with the Islamic world, and his emphasis on the international support for military strikes in Libya is an attempt to allay suspicions over U.S. intentions. And as budget deficits mount at home, the American public is looking for other nations to carry the fiscal burden of the fighting after a nearly a decade of war.

But U.S. diplomats were key in broadening and securing a United Nations resolution authorizing military force in Libya, and U.S. military power proved essential Saturday in preparing the battlefield for a no-fly zone to be enforced by European and possibly Arab nations.

As much as Obama has sought to strengthen the international organizations that the previous administration disdained, the United States remains essential to the operation in Libya, despite the president's and Clinton's efforts to play down the American role.

The early cooperation may be tested soon as signs emerge that the Obama administration and its European allies, particularly French President Nicolas Sarkozy, differ over how long military operations will last and to what end.

Sarkozy has spoken out far more aggressively than Obama on the danger Gaddafi poses to his people and the region, suggesting an endgame that includes his removal from power. But U.S. officials stressed Saturday that the resolution and the operations underway now are focused on protecting Libyan civilians from Gaddafi's advancing forces, not pushing him from power.

Mark Quarterman, a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said the risk in Libya is that the military operation will not end quickly or decisively. He said it is easy to imagine Gaddafi's well-armed government remaining strong, despite the no-fly zone.

"After the first few days, this could settle into a protracted fight between Gaddafi and the rebels, essentially a stalemate with neither side able to retake ground or negotiate an end to the fighting," he said. "Then what do you do?"

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