One detects a palpable sense of relief from the White House with the latest news that a NATO command arrangement has finally been forged. President Obama has repeatedly talked about US commitment in very limited terms, emphasizing that the United States is in the military lead only for a very short time -- days not weeks -- and that soon we will turn the mission over to the allies who will bear the brunt of the load from here on out. The United States is central right now, but only because we have unique assets needed for the opening phase of operations. Very soon (implied: long before this gets messy), others will step up and take over.
Since the Obama administration is partial to automobile metaphors, perhaps they will indulge this one. Obama apparently views the Libya mission this way: Obama owns the pick-up truck that a bunch of friends have borrowed to move a piano they bought. Obama is not buying the piano. He has not promised to help the friends carry the piano up to the third-floor apartment. He is only loaning them the pick-up truck and he expects to have the keys returned within a few days.
The news that after days of chaotic wrangling a NATO command arrangement is within view must feel like the keys to the truck are finally going to be returned. The United States will have provided the assets needed to establish air supremacy, but the allies will take over all of the rest of the load of the no-fly zone. Moreover, if the crisis escalates with humanitarian nightmares or mass atrocities -- "the piano gets stuck in the stair well" -- Obama's plan is apparently that the allies are the ones on the hook to deal with it.
There is a really good chance, however, that a more apt metaphor for what Obama has done is this: he has co-signed the lease for his college-age son and a bunch of fraternity brothers. If they mess up the house or otherwise stop paying the rent, Obama is on the hook because his name is on the lease.
President Obama talks about the Libya mission only with the simplified "false clarity" (my fellow FP colleague's protestations notwithstanding) of how things might unfold if everything goes well -- or at a minimum of how how things might unfold if everyone else does their part satisfactorily. If events do not unfold well and if our allies and partners do live up to Obama's promises, has he prepared the American people for the "nuanced realism" of a lingering commitment? The latest polls, which show the lowest level of support at the start of a major military operation in the last three decades, suggest not.
UPDATE: As if on cue, an anonymous administration official supplied the closer to my truck-loaned-to-piano-movers metaphor in today's New York Times. Check out this quote:
We didn’t want to get sucked into an operation with uncertainty at the end," the senior administration official said. "In some ways, how it turns out is not on our shoulders."
If I were writing it myself, I don't think I could have done much better.
Could it be that the administration has an exit plan, but not an exit strategy. Is the plan to quit whenever we have reached Obama's internal limit, which he consistently has indicated is measured in "days, not weeks?" A strategy would seek achievable political objectives relating to the mission itself. But so far the administration has not presented a strategy. Instead, they believe that "how it turns out is not on [their] shoulders." I wonder if the Allies see it that way.
Shadow Government is a blog about U.S. foreign policy under the Obama administration, written by experienced policy makers from the loyal opposition and curated by Peter D. Feaver and William Inboden.