Analysis: Libya mission is clouded by confusion

The Associated Press
Thursday, March 24, 2011; 3:06 AM

WASHINGTON -- President Barack Obama said he was setting clear and unmistakable terms for the U.S. role in Libya: It would be limited, lasting days, not weeks, and its purpose was to protect Libyan citizens.

But that's not the way it's turned out. Less than a week later, the mission has been clouded by confusion and questions about who's in charge and who's doing what - all while the killing of civilians is going on.

The Pentagon claims success in establishing an effective no-fly zone over much of Libya that has grounded Col. Moammar Gadhafi's aging air force. But Gadhafi's tanks and troops are still targeting civilians on the ground.

The administration seeks to minimize current disputes over the reins of leadership, suggesting everything will fall in place quickly, ideally by this weekend.

There are some doubters.

"It could still all come around very quickly in our favor. But if that's to happen, we will have to apply much more intensive military power in an effort to make this succeed," said Aaron David Miller, a former top State Department Mideast negotiator in Republican and Democratic administrations.

"But it doesn't appear to me, given the constraints acting upon us and our own reservations, that we're prepared to do that," said Miller, now with the Woodrow Wilson Center, a foreign-policy think tank. "Right now, it appears to be settling into a stalemate which isn't terribly hurting on the Gadhafi side."

Obama also faces a skeptical audience on Capitol Hill. House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, wrote to the president saying he and others "are troubled that U.S. military resources were committed to war without clearly defining for the American people, the Congress and our troops what the mission in Libya is and what America's role is in achieving that mission."

Boehner said Obama so far had made a "limited, sometimes contradictory case" for the action.

There also seems to be a disconnect between Obama and his military commanders. He keeps emphasizing that the U.S. is just one of many players in the coalition. But in their briefings, the generals and admirals sound like the Pentagon is running the show, at least for now.

To date, the air attacks on Libyan targets have been predominantly American. In a 24-hour period as of late Wednesday, 175 sorties were flown, 113 by the United States, U.S. Navy Rear Adm. Gerald P. Hueber told reporters from the U.S. command ship in the Mediterranean Sea.

His portrayal suggested a long slog might lie ahead.

"We have no indication that Gadhafi's forces are adhering to United Nations Resolution 1973," which authorized the establishment of a no-fly zone and demanded that government forces pull back from population centers, said Hueber, chief of staff for U.S. operations. "Our intelligence today is there's no indication that Gadhafi's forces are pulling back."

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates no doubt reflected the views of many military commanders when he warned weeks ago that establishing a no-fly zone was a big, complicated operation tantamount to an act of war - and one with questionable viability.

Gates, visiting Cairo on Wednesday, said he couldn't predict when the international military enforcement of a no-fly zone over Libya might end - but suggested the U.S. could turn over control of the operation as soon as Saturday. Gates said no one thought the assault would last only two or three weeks, but he could not say how the coalition operation might be resolved.

For now, at least, the U.S. remains the ad hoc boss of the operation, now in its fifth day, with no certainty about who will take over or when. Talks are continuing in Brussels, headquarters of the North American Treaty Organization.

The U.S. wants NATO to take the command and control lead in overseeing coalition forces. U.S., European, Arab and African officials have been invited to a meeting in London next Tuesday to discuss outstanding political and logistical issues.

Richard Downie, an Africa expert at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the United States' lead role in the operation was lasting longer than he'd expected.

"I think in this case, all the players are having a lot of difficulties coordinating their activities," he said. "Clearly they're not sure they can work it out at the moment. And the longer it takes to work it out, the more awkward it starts to look for the United States. The optics don't look so great to the Middle East when the U.S. is still front and center in this operation."

Obama has ruled out U.S. troops on the ground, and did so again Wednesday in an interview with the Spanish-language network Univision. Wrapping up a Latin American trip, Obama said a land invasion of Libya was "absolutely" out of the question.

Asked about an exit strategy, Obama did not lay out a vision for ending the international action. "The exit strategy will be executed this week in the sense that we will be pulling back from our much more active efforts to shape the environment," he said.

"We'll still be in a support role, we'll still be providing jamming and intelligence and other assets that are unique to us, but this is an international effort that's designed to accomplish the goals that were set out in the Security Council resolution," he said.

Many strategic issues have yet to be resolved. For instance, if the rebels are able to retake the military offensive, will the coalition provide air support as they seize territory or attack government troops?

"Nothing will be more dangerous to the effectiveness of the coalition's cause than not agreeing on why we are all there and what we intend to do," said former U.S. Under Secretary of State Nicholas Burns.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton urged patience. The biggest success of the operation so far - "a humanitarian crisis that thankfully didn't happen (in Benghazi)" - isn't getting enough attention, she told reporters Wednesday.

Still, she acknowledged, "Challenges remain so long as Gadhafi continues to direct his forces to attack his own people."


EDITOR'S NOTE: Tom Raum has covered national and international news for The Associated Press since 1973.

© 2011 The Associated Press