President Barack Obama was unambiguous on Saturday in explaining Security Council Resolution 1973's rationale for authorizing a no-fly zone and military engagement in Libya: the United Nations, he announced, had passed a strong resolution to end the violence against Libyan civilians. Calling for an immediate ceasefire in Libya, the president was clear that this is a humanitarian intervention.
But America's major coalition allies, most notably France's President Nicolas Sarkozy, do not necessarily share this goal. In an ironic contrast to 2003 when Washington pushed for the ouster of Saddam Hussein, Paris is calling for regime change, having already recognized on March 10 the Benghazi-based opposition as Libya's legitimate government.
Yet President Obama has been consistent in his desire to keep U.S. involvement in Libya as minimal as possible. The White House has spoken of a military action that lasts "days, not weeks." The president has publicly taken certain options off the table: "The United States is NOT going to deploy ground troops into Libya," he announced.
These differing objectives amongst the newly formed coalition do not augur well for a well-coordinated alliance, especially one that the United States explicitly does not want to lead. Moves beyond the humanitarian objectives will bring about a fraying of this union. Today, less than forty-eight hours after the international coalition's initial strikes, Arab League Secretary General Amre Moussa publicly condemned the bombing campaign in Libya, deploring its scope and intensity. This is a strong departure from the Arab League's call on March 12 for a no-fly zone, that apparently reversed the Obama administration's earlier opposition as voiced by U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates and White House Chief of Staff Bill Daley.
All this then begs the question: what happens should the no-fly zone's main objective—protection of Libya's civilians—actually be met? In calling for the intervention to last days and not weeks, the U.S. answer seems to be: not much. The United States will work to meet the Libyan people's humanitarian needs. But how will Obama respond if France and Britain push on against Muammar al-Qaddafi? Are we headed for a reprise of the 1956 Suez invasion, when President Dwight Eisenhower called upon French and British allies to halt their invasion of Nasser's Egypt?
But should a ceasefire come about as a result of the no-fly zone, what then becomes Washington's objective? Is regime change really off the table? President Obama has repeatedly said that Qaddafi must go. He also supports holding Qaddafi accountable before the International Criminal Court. But President Obama has not made clear how the United States intends to bring about Qaddafi's departure, if at all, having defined U.S. objectives as purely humanitarian while ruling out a ground intervention. Is a diplomatic effort to negotiate Qaddafi's departure an option? The answer so far has been no.
With the United States now militarily engaged in Libya, it is imperative that the president refine the nation's objectives more clearly and the means that will be employed to achieve them. Failure to clarify them entails running afoul of our coalition partners, a slide into an open-ended military engagement, or an unintended expansion of the mission. Such an expansion may be justified and necessary, especially if removing Qaddafi remains a U.S. goal. But this should be a decision identified now and taken soberly, not one that the United States is backed into.
The choice of any president to introduce U.S. forces into combat is always difficult. But a more challenging decision awaits: identifying when the mission has achieved its objectives. The more the president identifies and clarifies those objectives, the better are the chances of success and of reduced American casualties in Libya.