The Non-Imperial Presidency: Obama and Libya

Newscaster: The failure of today's pre-dawn Special Forces raid in Tripoli to catch or dispatch Moammar Gaddafi leaves the Obama Administration with a dwindling set of options on Day 32 of the Libyan War. The wily colonel had already moved from his Bab al-Azizia compound to an alternate headquarters, leaving the assault force of Navy Seals and Army Rangers little choice but to fight their way out of a trap. The Pentagon has not released casualty figures. The CIA is not commenting on the misfiring mission.

More than a month of round-the-clock air strikes and Tomahawk missile attacks have pushed Gaddafi forces back from the rebel-held eastern part of Libya but have failed either to relieve the dictator's siege of Misurata in the west or to loosen his grip on the capital. Widespread civilian casualties from the increased allied aerial bombardment have stiffened the resolve of the colonel's supporters and spurred anti-American sentiment.

Now America's hopes for victory turn on the amphibious units on the ships offshore, where heroic young U.S. Marines await the chance to perform their generation's version of the second line of their famous anthem, 'From the halls of Montezuma, To the shores of Tripoli ...'

Libyan rebels scrambled this week to fortify Ajdabiya, the key coastal city on the road to Benghazi which has changed hands repeatedly.

Nothing at all like this has happened, of course, though many imagined that something much like it would.

There were fantasies here and elsewhere of another Iraq or, better yet, the golden oldie, Vietnam.

But in reality, it looks, as I said at the beginning, a lot more like Kosovo.

Instead of complaints about President Barack Obama morphing into George W. Bush and Lyndon B. Johnson, two Texas forebears in the would-be art of war, there are widespread complaints that Obama isn't doing enough, that America under Obama is letting Moammar Gaddafi hang on to power in half of the country.

Fortunately for Obama on the world stage, most of the complaints -- and they are legion -- are against the other NATO countries for failing to relieve Gaddafi's relentless siege of Misurata, where the UN human rights chief says the regime may be committing war crimes and for not providing effective air support to the rebels.

But the reality is that Obama, while setting Gaddafi's departure as the ultimate foreign policy goal, is sticking to the mandate of the United Nations Security Council resolution so hard-won last month. And that was to establish an aggressively policed no-fly zone and expansively protect civilians. The resolution was broad enough to allow widespread attacks to weaken Gaddafi's military. It essentially saved Benghazi from impending attack and set the stage for a de facto partition of Libya while sanctions worked against Gaddafi.

That is the mission laid out in the UN resolution. It's a worthwhile mission, it's an achievable mission that has been largely accomplished. But it's not a mission that necessarily ends in a clearcut win. And it's not a mission that ends quickly, if at all, despite what so many thought at their time in their own imaginings. While it's a mission that saves lives on all sides, it's a mission that requires constant police work.

In shallow popular terms, it's a half-victory. Welcome to the 21st century.

Obama, who has spoken from the beginning of multilateralism, promised that America would hand-off leadership of the mission in short order. And the hand-off was made in short order. Obama, of course, is withdrawing as promised from Iraq, which is good, but escalated in Afghanistan, also as promised, but decidedly not good.

Now NATO is in command of the mission, with the still unwieldy guidance of the International Contact Group on Libya, which includes Gulf Arab states and some other non-NATO members.

To The Shores of Tripoli, its title taken from the second line of the U.S. Marine Corps hymn, was one of the last service pictures produced prior to Pearl Harbor, with what might be called a naive air about it. The Tripoli line, incidentally, comes from the first U.S. military victory on foreign soil, coming on the orders of ideologically non-interventionist President Thomas Jefferson during the First Barbary War in 1805.

The result has been less aggressive air strikes, in part due to lesser capabilities on the part of other countries.

Gaddafi forces are free to surge under the cover of bad weather and sand storms, and have wiped out virtually all gains made by the rebels while America was in the lead role.

That's because the rebels, as I also wrote early on here on The Huffington Post, were and largely still are in military terms a rabble, until very recently usually unable to hold any ground at all. So much for the notion that the CIA or some other clandestine service had cleverly created an imperial proxy military force to take out Gaddafi.

Now the anti-Gaddafi coalition is scrambling, with U.S. air assets playing a supporting but not leading role. The continued shelling of Misurata in western Libya points up the remarkable inability of NATO to take out Gaddafi's artillery and rocket launchers, armaments which give his ground forces a big edge over the rebels.

Misurata has been under siege by Gaddafi forces for many weeks.

European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton called for sending 1000 EU troops to accompany humanitarian aid missions to the besieged city of Misurata -- where Human Rights Watch and others say that his forces are using banned cluster bomb munitions -- and other locations in Libya. The Gaddafi regime, not surprisingly, is rejecting this.

Photo-journalist Tim Hetherington, who earned an Academy Award nomination for co-directing the documentary film Restrepo about the Afghan War, was killed Wednesday in Misurata along with a fellow photo-journalist while covering the siege.

His final tweet was quite damning: "In besieged Libyan city of Misrata. Indiscriminate shelling by Qaddafi forces. No sign of NATO."

Meanwhile, France, Britain, and Italy say they will dispatch a cadre of senior military advisors to aid the rebel leadership in Benghazi. These troops are all reportedly coming in small numbers; we're talking dozens. Of course, the Vietnam War began with the insertion of small numbers of military advisors.

While these things play out, the Libyan War continues in its yo-yo fashion, pointing up the rebels' complete dependence on NATO and NATO's problematic performance in the absence of the U.S. taking the leading role.

Libyan rebels again advanced along the coastal highway as this past weekend began, with Ajdabiya secured and, with the help of major air strikes from NATO, the rebels again threatened the strategic oil port of Brega, which has changed hands half a dozen times in the past six weeks. The rebels have new communications gear and body armor, reportedly supplied by the UK.

"We are coming tonight and there will be no mercy." Gaddafi's bloodcurdling speech, vowing an immediate massacre in Benghazi as the UN Security Council prepared to vote, all but guaranteed that military action would be taken against him.

But bad weather and big sandstorms blocked the NATO air effort, allowing Gaddafi forces to counter-attack, driving the rebels all the way back to Ajdabiya and placing that seemingly secure city under siege. Only a change in the weather allowed NATO air strikes to foil Gaddafi's re-taking of the city.

Now, as you see in the Al Jazeera video above, the rebels are finally constructing fortifications around Ajdabiya, the last big city on the road up the Mediterranean to the de facto rebel capital of Benghazi.

So, here is where we are. Far from an imperial presidency waging war in Libya, the reality of the Obama presidency is that he is insisting not on American imperialism, but on multilateralism. That's why we see endless rounds of international meetings on Libya, from the multiple NATO sessions in Europe (last weekend in Berlin and before that in Brussels and Paris) to the biweekly meetings of the new International Contact Group on Libya, first in London, then in Qatar.

The attitude of Obama, who was clearly not anxious to jump into a third war, is evident: He's willing to have America help, especially to prevent what a month ago was the imminent sacking of Benghazi, and to make the no-fly zone possible by doing what U.S. forces are uniquely capable of doing in taking out sophisticated anti-aircraft systems. But for the long term, if the international coalition wants to act, it has to pick up the slack itself rather than rely on America to do it all.

This is why the rebels' training, armaments, and leadership still lag, and why financing for the rebels is still being worked out.

Is this approach, what I called a month ago "Obama's diffident way of war," going to succeed?

Well, it all depends on how you define success. The mission laid out in the UN Security Council resolution is very achievable, once Gaddafi's relentless siege of Misurata is ended, that is.

But if success is defined as getting rid of Gaddafi, that's a different matter, as I also said from the beginning.

You can check things during the day on my site, New West Notes ...