U.S. Escalates Libya War

Obama Tries to Fight His Way Out of Libya; Spending Stalemate on Hill; Israel Violence Benefits Baddies in Arab Uprising; Portuguese Pig Out

In a Political Bind, Obama Escalates Libyan War

"This command-and-control business is complicated, and we haven't done something like this kind of on-the-fly before.”

-- Defense Secretary Robert Gates talking to reporters.

On the sixth day of fighting since the U.S. entered the Libyan civil war, American forces have stepped up their attacks in a coordinated effort to help rebel forces push back the ground troops of Col. Muammar Qaddafi.

While complex rules of engagement prevent America from working directly with the rebels to knock out government armor and artillery units, reports suggest the CIA is acting as a liaison between the rebels and U.S. war fighters and that the rebels also use their diplomatic contacts in France to coordinate, at two degrees of separation, with the Americans trying to support their uprising.

The mission in Libya has evolved from disabling the country’s already anemic air force – a task largely completed in the opening hours of U.S. entry into the war -- to providing close air support for rebel fighters and striking at strategic targets across the country.

The shift has come amid the deepening understanding that if the U.S. attacks do not topple Qaddafi, the war will pose a huge political liability for President Obama. A stalemate between a battered but not beaten Qaddafi and U.S.-backed rebels in pockets of resistance looks like a long, unappealing slog.

But at the same time, the administration is facing deepening questions about how and why the president brought the U.S. into the war. Obama is eager to hand off combat operations to European allies before Congress gets back in session on Monday.

Republicans, including Speaker John Boehner, and Democrats have demanded answers from the president on the mission, aims and exit strategy for Operation Odyssey Dawn. Obama said on Tuesday that “the exit strategy will be executed this week,” but successive days have brought escalation not exit.

The Obama plan is to hand off leadership of the war to a multi-national coalition under the leadership of British or French commanders by this weekend. But there isn’t much of a coalition to hand off to.

Obama has maintained that the American war aim is to prevent civilian massacres but that his own, non-military objective is to eventually force Qaddafi from power through international isolation. The British and French, meanwhile, make no such legalistic distinctions – the point of the war to them is to drive Qaddafi from power, even if it means sending in ground troops.

The Europeans have decided that their old adversary and oil supplier, Qaddafi, must go and do not like the idea of leaving him or his tribe to linger over the country’s petroleum reserves and with the means for terror attacks across the Mediterranean. Obama, meanwhile, has maintained that a stalemate is an acceptable outcome.

A problem in reconciling these divergent views has been the lack of a command structure or proper alliance. The French, Germans and Turks have all nixed the idea of running this as a NATO operation and the once-vaunted support of the Arab League has not manifested itself in practical military assistance or political consensus.

While Obama says he is eager to end what he euphemistically called America’s “active efforts to shape the environment” in Libya, there are no other viable environment shapers available. (A new war euphemism heard from the administration on Wednesday was “kinetic military action.” Quite so.)

Not even the Brits have the military capabilities to undertake the kind of air war necessary to topple Qaddafi’s tribal and mercenary army.

The escalation of the U.S. air war may be part of a final flurry before trying to pass the hot potato to someone else, but Obama finds himself caught between competing political desires.

If the war drags on, it will be an expensive and unpopular conflict at home, even if the U.S. is not the one “shap[ing] the environment.” But if Obama escalates the conflict further in an effort to quickly topple Qaddafi, he loses the cover of the U.N. humanitarian mission on which he says America is embarked.

In either scenario, Obama must answer the questions about why he brought the U.S. into the war without consulting Congress – an action he and many other Democrats had declared unconstitutional in the past.

The irony is that the international blessing of the conflict that provides political cover for the president leading the country into the war also severely limits the Obama’s options for prosecuting it.

Fiscal Frizzle Awaits Obama

“If he wasn’t engaged before, how engaged is he going to be now?”

-- Republican House aide discussing with Power Play President Obama and the ongoing debate over federal spending.

Before President Obama has a meeting with his national security team about the bewildering war in Libya, he will first get his lunchtime fill from Vice President Biden about the state of affairs on ongoing spending negotiations with Congress.

The current emergency funding measure for the government is set to expire on April 8, and Biden, who has spent much of his recent time raising money on the rubber chicken circuit and comparing Republicans to rapists and 19th Century xenophobes, is the point man for White House negotiations with the GOP on the Hill.

Biden’s follies on the road while Obama has been on a five-day tour of Latin America have done little to endear him to the Republicans. One Hill aide, though, said only the president’s position mattered anyway.

Joe Biden doesn’t matter, no matter how insulting he is,” said the senior aide. “He’s just wasting time until the president gets involved.”

Biden will get a cram session this morning from White House budget boss Jack Lew about what kind of spending proposal might be amenable to Senate Democrats and the administration. But consensus seems to be a long way off.

There is a growing movement in the Senate for coupling the ongoing spending conflict with a long-term move to address the federal debt via entitlement programs. Others suggest that the short-term measure should be tied to the looming vote to increase the federal borrowing limit from its current $14.3 trillion ceiling. Still others suggest the discussion be rolled into a debate over next year’s budget, for which a Republican proposal is expected in the coming days.

But that’s a lot of pie in the sky. Neither the Democrats nor Republicans seem to have the party unity needed to engage in a grand bargain right now. House Republicans are weary of short-term spending patches and the White House and Senate Democrats have aggressively pooh-poohed the idea of making long-term changes to Social Security.

But perhaps the biggest impediment so far to making a deal has been disinterest from Obama. Having delegated the spending discussion to Hill Democrats and Biden, Obama sent a clear message to Republicans that he wasn’t ready to talk Turkey.

The new Libyan war further complicates the issue. Not only does the president now have more urgent matters to address, but the war also further fractures political coalitions on the Hill and is rapidly eating up the remaining funds at the Department of Defense.

Attacks on Israel Aid Islamists

"Israel will act aggressively, responsibly and wisely to preserve the quiet and security that prevailed here over the past two years.”

-- Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu commenting on a spate of rocket and terror attacks in his country.

The old, bloody cycle has been renewed in Israel. Palestinians attack Israel, Israel responds, the Palestinians attack in reprisal, the Israeli’s counterattack and so on.

It’s been two years since we last saw the cycle but Hamas seems to be making up for lost time, with a terror strike at a Jerusalem bus stop that has caused outrage across Israel. This all comes after Obama-led negotiations over creating a separate Muslim state for the Palestinians crumbled.

But while the cycle of violence in Israel is not new, the international circumstances are quite different.

The Arab world is in the midst of a massive uprising directed at the authoritarian, but stabilizing regimes that have kept the region out of large-scale conflagrations for decades. The Iranian-backed Shiites and other Islamists looking to capitalize on this instability will surely exploit the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to incite old hatreds and radicalize the movement.

If the conflict around Jerusalem deepens, it’s hard not to think the Muslim Brotherhood and others will find a way to take advantage. Iran backs Hamas and the Brotherhood and might even be encouraging the Palestinians to ramp up the conflict at this tenuous time.

Portugal Prefers Bankruptcy

"Those who imagine that an external aid package won't include more demanding measures—measures that are worse for us—are completely fooled or purely and simply don't know what they're talking about."

-- Ousted Portuguese Prime Minister José Sócrates in an address following the unseating of his government.

It was no surprise that Greece and Spain -- spendthrift nations with crummy economies – slipped into fiscal insolvency. Greece hasn’t had a balanced budget since Hector was a pup and Spain couldn’t even stay in the black while plundering all the gold in the New World.

What was surprising was that the two nations responded to their debt crisis with serious austerity packages. Even in the face of riots and arson from government workers, the nations have adopted tough fiscal measures in an effort to refinance their massive debts.

International lenders have responded favorably by continuing to extend credit to the countries, thereby preventing the collapse of the Euro and an expansion of the fiscal forest fire across the continent.

Portugal, though, decided Wednesday that it would rather not get austere.

The parliament not only voted down the spending trims on offer from Prime Minister José Sócrates, but opted to unseat his government while they were at it.

The effect will be something like a bankruptcy declaration. Rather than putting their house in order and continue to negotiate with private lenders, the Portuguese are opting to throw themselves on the mercy of the International Monetary Fund.

There’s enough money for the bailout of the tiny nation’s economy, but if the Portuguese abdication is a leading indicator – if the other debt ridden nations of the union, like Ireland, follow suit – then the Euro cannot long survive.

And Now, A Word From Charles

“If the Republicans win, they will win the House and Senate and it will be repealed. If Obama wins it will be law of the land and un-repealable until the end of the time.”

-- Charles Krauthammer on “Special Report with Bret Baier” discussing the 2012 election and President Obama’s national health care law.