U.S. Struggles to Define Objective in Libya

"We are in Libya because of oil. It all goes back to the five million barrels of oil we import from OPEC on a daily basis."

-- Rep. Edward Markey, D-Mass., on MSNBC speaking in support of President Obama’s attack on Libya

The crash of an Air Force F-15 during a raid against government forces in Libya drove home the costs and complexities of the U.S.-led mission in Libya.

Questions about the mission, including its rules of engagement, objective and alliances, have steadily mounted as the sustained bombardment continues, and threatened to reach a tipping point today.

While rebels had initially been able to exploit the chaos wrought by U.S. attacks on Col. Muammar al-Qaddafi’s forces, their gains seemed to be faltering as limited supplies and a lack of discipline and unit cohesion among the rebels gave government ground troops the chance to dig in, and in some cases, retake terrain.

There is already considerable confusion over the U.S. mission there. While the U.N. mandate is to protect civilians from attacks, there have been varying definitions about what constitutes civilian status and how far U.S. forces can go in engaging the Libyan military.

Gen. Carter Ham, the commander of Operation Odyssey Dawn, deepened that confusion Wednesday when he told reporters that the job of pilots on raids in Libya was to “discern intent” of units engaged in fighting.

A rebel may be protected as a civilian if he is not too heavily armed, whereas a rebel in a commandeered tank may not merit protection as a combatant, not a civilian. A Libyan army unit on the move may be blown up if it seems to be moving against a civilian position, but not if it is moving away or hunkering down.

But with rebels unable to consolidate gains brought by the massive U.S. raids of the past three days, the obvious aim of the American forces – to push back Qaddafi’s forces and allow rebels to knock over the dictator – may demand providing what amounts to close air support to rebel forces, with which Americans are explicitly forbidden from coordinating.

Ham admitted to reporters that the rules likely sounded more feasible in a briefing room than in a cockpit, but by trying to live within the means of an international mandate and without congressional approval, the military is pretty far out on a limb.

President Obama, continuing a family trip through Latin America, sounded rather blithe about the whole affair when talking to reporters in Chile.

Obama discussed the need to protect glaciers and other sundries typical of official visits, and when asked about the widening war in Libya first joked with the reporter asking the question, Jim Kuhnhenn of the Associated Press, and then discussed Kuhnhenn's roots in Chile.

When he did turn to the mounting doubts on the war, especially the ambiguity of the U.S. mission, Obama said, “I think it’s very easy to square our military actions and our stated policies.”

Obama said that the military goal was to protect civilians but his administration’s goal was to force Qaddafi from power, but that the two items weren’t necessarily part of the same mission. Sanctions and international isolation would do their work on Qaddafi in the long run after the strikes were done.

The bombs are for protecting civilians, but the sanctions are for regime change. Got it?

With a $30 million F-15 ruined (the crew was able to eject before the crash) and the demands on the military growing in the conflict, the U.S.-led intervention in Libya looks increasingly like the complicated undertaking the Pentagon warned it would be.

This item originally misidentified the reporter questioning President Obama.

Allies Dodge Obama’s Libya Handoff

“The Arab League does not wish the operation to be entirely placed under NATO responsibility. It isn’t NATO which has taken the initiative up to now.”

-- French Foreign Minister Alain Juppé objecting to calls for the U.S. to hand over control of the Libyan attack to NATO

The cornerstone of the Obama strategy for the Libyan civil war was to have the U.S. lead a massive assault to give the rebel forces some breathing room in their fight against Qaddafi’s military and then hand off the campaign to the broad coalition initially backing the U.S. attack.

The U.S. would do the shock and awe and then fade into the background as the junior partners in the coalition flew sorties over the devastated defenses of Libya.

But the French and Turks aren’t keen on having NATO take over the mission, and with growing fears of Libyan terror attacks, it seems unlikely that the French will soon embrace shared responsibility for leading the assault.

And while Qatar is willing to chip in a quartet of U.S. made fighters to the effort, the Arab League is not showing much interest in joining a fight that increasingly looks like taking sides in a civil war, not just preventing atrocities.

Plus, with deep friction between the Saudis and the Obama administration over how best to respond to Iranian-backed uprisings throughout the Gulf region, Arabs are not too thrilled at the idea of encouraging Western-backed regime change in the region.

So Obama is ready to pass the baton on Libya, but there is no one there to receive it. And America’s adversaries are delighted to see it.

While a visit to Russia by Defense Secretary Robert Gates helped dampen Russian criticism of the war on Monday, China was not so restrained. The Communist house organ People’s Daily called the U.S. mission “a blow to the United Nations charter and the rules of international relations.”

Expect pressure from Russia and China to mount ahead of the next Security Council meeting on the subject, scheduled for Thursday. That pressure will cause other uncertain allies to peel away and could leave the U.S. holding the bag.

Concerns in Congress Grow Over Authority for Libya War

"The president does not have power under the Constitution to unilaterally authorize a military attack in a situation that does not involve stopping an actual or imminent threat to the nation."

-- Then-Sen. Barack Obama answering a December 2007 question by the Boston Globe

Members of Congress on Monday received a letter from President Obama officially notifying them that he had undertaken an attack on Libya. Rather than quelling congressional anxiety about Obama entering the war against Qaddafi without prior approval, the missive seemed to just make lawmakers more upset.

Obama is helped by the fact that Congress is not in session this week and lawmakers aren’t as quick to whip themselves into indignation when they aren’t together. On the downside, it is harder to keep Democrats hushed up about the president’s flip-flop on congressional authorization when they are scattered across the land and out of caucus leaders’ reach.

The situation is also complicated by the more libertarian bent of the Republican Party. There was already grumbling over the cost of Obama’s nation-building surge in Afghanistan, but spending $100 million a day on a U.N. mission with an oblique objective is repellant to the small-government crowd. Plus, the right has become very skeptical of the idea of an imperial presidency.

Europeans are eager to see a quick resolution to the Libyan civil war in hopes of avoiding terror attacks against them and resuming the full flow of oil on which they depend.

Obama, meanwhile, is eager for a quick resolution because his domestic political coalition is looking just as unsteady as his international military one. Liberals may be happy to see U.N. approval, but the left – including Obama – staked out some very stringent positions on congressional approval while looking to constrain George W. Bush.

But now even moderates, like Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., Obama’s favorite Republican on foreign policy issues, has blasted the way the president ignored lawmakers.

Obama needs to have the U.S. substantially out of the picture in Libya by next week or he will face plenty of problems from Congress.

Yemeni Crackdown Ran Afoul of New Obama Doctrine

“It’s clear at this point that Saleh will have to step down.”

-- Barbara Bodine, a former U.S. ambassador to Yemen, predicting to Bloomberg News the fate of Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, a key U.S. ally in the Middle East

The Saudi military is currently helping the monarchy of Bahrain quell an uprising by the island nation’s Shiite majority – and with some success. Bahraini and Saudi forces have retaken all of the capital of Manama and are trying to root out rebels in the rest of the country.

In 2009, though, the Saudis were aiding their neighbors in Yemen put down a Shiite rebellion there. As in Bahrain, the Saudi concern was that the Shiites would bring an Arab nation into the orbit of Iran and provide a launching point for terror attacks on the Saudi kingdom itself.

After a years-long struggle, though, the reigning government in Yemen, led by President Ali Abdullah Saleh, is about to topple, leaving only uncertainty for a nation that was already a political failure and home to the world’s most active cell of al Qaeda.

The U.S. has been applying increasing pressure to Saleh to end his crackdown on rebels as the Obama administration realigns its policy on the Middle East. While it was OK two years ago for an American ally to kill rebels, doing so as the U.S. pummels Libya for doing the same thing had become politically awkward for President Obama.

The Wall Street Journal today suggests that the administration’s repositioning in the region – the attack in Libya, sterner stances with longtime allies – is part of an effort to provide a counterbalance to Iran.

While the Saudis and others are using rifles and batons to battle Iranian-backed protesters and rebels, the administration is hoping to pressure Tehran by being supportive of rebellions in the region, regardless of their sectarian inclinations. The PR battle is over which side is more hypocritical – Tehran for supporting protests elsewhere and suppressing them at home or the U.S. for having varying tolerances for repression in the region.

Whatever Obama wants to do, though, it will be limited by the ultimate counterbalance to Shiite Iran – the Sunni Saudis.

Having bucked the Saudis on the Egyptian uprising, the administration is already on shaky ground with the world’s largest oil producer and the largest military power in the region. And the Saudi royals are watching with alarm as stable regimes in Yemen, Syria and elsewhere come under assault.

McCaskill Grounded by Plane Scandals

“I have convinced my husband to sell the damn plane.”

-- Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., in a conference call with reporters announcing her payment of $287,273 in back taxes

A double-whammy scandal surrounding a private plane may have temporarily grounded the re-election hopes of Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo.

McCaskill is facing a tough re-election bid against likely Republican nominee former state Treasurer Sarah Steelman. The Democratic freshman, though, was carving out a reputation as both a fiscal hawk and a good government stickler – traits she hopes will outweigh her early and enthusiastic support for Barack Obama’s presidential candidacy in the minds of Show Me State voters who have soured on Obama.

But McCaskill has now had to cut two big checks concerning a private plane owned by a holding company controlled by her and husband Joe Shepard, a wealthy St. Louis developer.

First, McCaskill paid the government $88,000 she received in reimbursement for traveling on her own plane, including one trip for a political event not allowed by Senate travel rules.

The rest of the travel was on the up and up, but it sounded sketchy for McCaskill to be seeking reimbursement to herself from the government through a holding company. The story also revealed the existence of the plane itself, a Swiss-made Pilatus, long-range turbo-prop, a model favored by many corporations and government agencies for executive travel. Not plush, but still pretty cushy for a daughter of Rolla, Mo.

Having claimed the moral high ground after cutting the reimbursement check, though, McCaskill was confronted with a report that her holding company had dodged five years of Missouri property taxes on the plane.

McCaskill’s company purchased the plane in 2006 and initially kept the aircraft across the river in Illinois, but soon after moved it to Missouri without reporting it to tax officials.

One of the first rules of scandal management is that if you intend to take the matter on directly, be sure that there are no further problems Attempting to bulldoze a scandal, as McCaskill did on the reimbursement, only to be hit with more allegations eliminates the initial advantage of seeming forthright.

In the end, McCaskill has paid more than $345,000 to clear up problems with her plane. It’s no doubt politically preferable to letting the scandal linger, but being able to stroke checks equal to almost eight years of the average Missouri family’s income to settle some private plane unpleasantness will not endear her to the blue-collar voters on whom her hopes for a second term rest.