Yesterday, I noted that Obama seems to be trying to wish away, or command away, the specter of quagmire. "Days, not weeks" is his watchword -- repeated, this time in public, today. But today he fleshed out why he thinks he's able to say that -- and showed the architecture of what he's tried to construct as a limited United States engagement.
Asked how he "can 'square' the assertion that Muammar Qadhafi is killing people but that he doesn't have to leave power," Obama unraveled his own riddle of the sphinx as it's emerged over three weeks. He asserted three paradoxes or anomalies:
- The U.N. mandate is limited to stopping civilian deaths, but U.S. policy is to force Qadhafi out.
- The U.S is exerting military leadership, but only in phase 1 of U.N.-authorized coalition action (notwithstanding that its policy goals are more expansive than the U.N's).
- The U.S. is committed to driving Qadhafi out, but not to driving him out militarily.
Behold as presidential logic, live-blogged by Politico, doth unfold:
"Our military actions are in support of an international mandate from the Security Council that specifically focuses on the humanitarian threat posed by Colonel Qadhafi on his people," he says. (2:46 p.m.)Let's unpack that chronologically:
Obama then says that the U.S. policy is that "Qadhafi needs to go." He says, "We've got a wide range of tools in addition to our military efforts to support that policy." He then says the United States was "very rapid" in acting.
"When it comes to military action, we are doing so in support of U.N. Security Council Resolution 1973," he says, "and we are going to make sure that we stick to that mandate." (2:47 p.m.)
Stressing that other countries are involved in the attack on Libya, Obama says "there's going to be a transition taking pace," in which European countries and Arab League members will establish a no-fly zone. "We are one of the partners, among many, who are going to ensure that a no-fly zone is enforced," he says.
1. The U.S. is leading the initial phase of the operation -- establishing the no-fly zone -- and then handing off leadership to "partners."
2. The second phase, post-handoff, is of indeterminate length.
3. Military action is limited to fulfilling U.N. resolution 1973, i.e. to stopping the slaughter of civilians.
4. "Qadhafi needs to go."
5. Qadhafi will be forced out by means other than military.
In Obama's Wars, Bob Woodward recounts that when Obama finally determined his Afghan strategy, he presented his civilian and military advisers with a six-page "terms sheet," binding them to a timetable and a "hard cap" on troop commitments, along with many other conditions for a ramped-up counterinsurgency. Here again, for what he plainly is trying to structure as a limited commitment, he is imposing on partners and announcing to the world an intricately sequenced plan and a strictly limited U.S. commitment.
Exquisitely subtle? Too clever by half? Neither the Taliban nor Qadhafi are bound by Obama's contracts.
More on the Libyan conundrum
O Captain! My Captain! Make us all get in the boat together (3/23/11)
The Financial Times hearts dithering (3/22/11)
Obama's military triangulation (3/20/11)
A spectacle of war and intervention (3/18/11)
No risk-free course in Libya (3/18/11)