Shadow Government

Has Obama done a short-haul loan on Libya or has he co-signed a longer lease?

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

Multilateralism Obama style

It is such a comfort to know in a world of change, some things can still be relied upon. Like the irritating behavior of France. President Nicolas Sarkozy is reported to have refused to approve NATO military plans for operations in Libya until leaders were assembled in Paris -- and then launched French aircraft sans coordination with allies.

Even with its false start, France did not get the honor of commencing operations. The United States, which the president tells us is not leading this operation, did. Of the 130 cruise missiles fired to commence operations, nearly all were American. American's flew half of the 80 air sorties yesterday. Sticker price to the American taxpayer: likely several billion dollars; it was over $100 million for the first day's missiles alone. The British are the only country that has invested enough in their own defense to have the ability to participate in the opening salvo of cruise missiles.

President Obama's plan is to have the U.S. do the initial work that had to be done fast to prevent Gaddafi overrunning Benghazi and that required precision and risk the U.S. military is uniquely proficient at, then transition the operation to command by countries that will be patrolling the skies over Libya for the indefinite future.

But there is still no agreement to whom command will be passed. British Prime Minister Cameron insists it must be NATO; Sarkozy insists not. The French defense spokesman now suggests all participating military forces should have the honor of serving under French national command. Turkish Defense Minister expressed mystification, saying "It does not seem quite possible for us to understand France's being so much at the forefront in this action." Italian Foreign Minister Frattini threatens Italy will not allow use of its bases unless it becomes a NATO operation. The French and German ambassadors walked out yesterday after criticism by the NATO Secretary General of France for unilateralism and Germany for not participating.

Turkey's Prime Minister has objected to using force against Qaddafi, and was excluded from the Paris meetings over the weekend. Yesterday the Turkish Foreign Minister said, "there is a certain procedure under international law for the formation of such coalitions. We do not believe that this procedure was sufficiently observed."  It's a pretty safe bet that Turkey will veto a direct NATO role.

To their credit, the Administration was able to convince a Muslim country, Qatar, to send a token six airplanes. But they have not done appreciably better than the Bush Administration, which even without a UN Security Council resolution gathered 56 (mostly token) force contributing countries for the invasion of Iraq. 

The State Department responded to questions about the dearth of Arab participation with "we believe we have Arab support...we need to let this process play out." Arab League Secretary General Amir Moussa called for a special meeting of the Arab League to discuss civilian casualties inflicted by our airstrikes. The German Foreign Minister has said the Arab League's criticism justifies Germany having abstained from supporting the U.N. resolution. 

This is what comes from a lack of leadership by the United States. The medium powers squabble, and we do most of the work. Building a coalition requires a much more solid understanding of objectives, roles and responsibilities than President Obama launched this war having. The time of American leverage to work out these details was before we undertook the work France wanted to take credit for us doing and the Arab League was willing to support. Unfortunately, at that time the Obama administration remained opposed to the military operations they are now engaged in.

TIM SLOAN/AFP/Getty Images