THE CONTRADICTIONS at the heart of U.S. policy in Libya are becoming more acute. On Friday President Obama joined the leaders of Britain and France in declaring that the NATO air campaign, which was launched in the name of protecting civilians, will continue for as long as dictator Moammar Gaddafi remains in power. Yet in an interview he gave to the Associated Press the same day, Mr. Obama acknowledged that the war between rebels and Mr. Gaddafi’s forces is stalemated, 10 days after U.S. ground attack aircraft were pulled from the operation on his orders.
The supreme NATO commander, an American, told the allies Thursday that eight more ground attack planes were needed for precision strikes. But the Associated Press quoted Mr. Obama as saying that he didn’t foresee recommitting American planes to such missions.
Let’s see if we can sum this up: Mr. Obama is insisting that NATO’s air operation, already four weeks old, cannot end until Mr. Gaddafi is forced from office — but he refuses to use American forces to break the military stalemate. If his real aim were to plunge NATO into a political crisis, or to exhaust the air forces and military budgets of Britain and France — which are doing most of the bombing — this would be a brilliant strategy. As it is, it is impossible to understand.
Mr. Obama appears less intent on ousting Mr. Gaddafi or ensuring NATO’s success than in proving an ideological point — that the United States need not take the lead in a military operation that does not involve vital U.S. interests. How else to explain his decision to deny NATO the two most effective ground attack airplanes in the world — the AC-130 and A-10 Warthog — which exist only in the U.S. Air Force and which were attacking Mr. Gaddafi’s tanks and artillery until April 4? Since their withdrawal, rebel forces have reported a falloff in the effectiveness of NATO’s airstrikes, and commanders have conceded that they have been unable to root out the regime’s tanks from the city of Misurata, where they have been indiscriminately firing on civilians.
The French and British have been stranded by Mr. Obama’s posture; they are facing the usual difficulties in persuading NATO’s other members to join in bombing operations. Only half of the alliance’s nations are active in Libya, and a number are quietly opposing a mission they see as ill-conceived. Both the British and French foreign ministers have appealed for American help, but France’s Alain Juppe appeared to get a brush-off from Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton in a closed-door meeting Thursday. “I got the sense they will stick to their same line,” he said, according to an account in The Post.
We believed that Mr. Obama was right to support NATO’s intervention in Libya not only because of the risk that Mr. Gaddafi would carry out massacres but because defeating the dictator is crucial to the larger cause of democratic change in the Middle East. Yet having reluctantly joined the fight — and accepted the goal of Mr. Gaddafi’s ouster — Mr. Obama seems determined to limit the American role even if it makes success impossible. If the president is very lucky, Mr. Gaddafi will be betrayed and overthrown by his followers or somehow induced to step down voluntarily. We can only hope that the NATO alliance does not collapse between now and then.