What's happening in Libya? When we last checked in, President Obama had said that the United States would participate in the U.N.-sponsored no-fly zone but that this was not — repeat not — a war to oust Moammar Kadafi. Rather, the narrow purpose of the operation was to avert humanitarian disaster. He acknowledged that he would like to see Kadafi go, but said that under no circumstances would ground troops be sent in to make that happen. Instead, the U.S. would use nonmilitary means to hasten the strongman's departure. The president tied it all up in a neat package and made it sound promising and uplifting, like a victory for morality, for democracy, for innocent civilians at risk and for the whole idea of limited humanitarian intervention.
But now, several weeks later, that neat package is coming undone. The war rages on. The rebels, disorganized and underequipped, are neither winning nor losing; Kadafi is neither firmly entrenched nor on his way out, as far as anyone knows. NATO, its members still squabbling among themselves, has no formal mandate to oust the Libyan leader but is unwilling to walk away either. Hundreds have died, while the diplomatic and economic squeeze has so far proved unsuccessful. In this frustrating situation, unsurprisingly, there's a natural tendency toward "mission creep," as the U.S. and other NATO nations try to figure out how to break the stalemate. Britain, France and Italy say they will send military advisors to help the rebels (in a move that can't help but remind Americans of the gradual start of the Vietnam War). On Thursday, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said that Obama had authorized the deployment of armed Predator drones to target Kadafi's forces, deepening the United States' role in a conflict that increasingly seems to be about more than protecting civilians.
What a mess. And not a totally unfamiliar one. Proponents of stronger action against Kadafi say the problem is that the United States is not fully committed, that it is half-in and half-out, unwilling to risk dollars or lives to achieve its aims. There's some truth to that analysis. As Richard N. Haass, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations (and not a supporter of stronger action), has noted, there's a gap between the ambitious goal of ousting Kadafi and the tremendous limits the U.S. has put on the means.
For our part, we'd rather see the ambitions narrowed than the means expanded. We don't see the upside in getting more deeply involved in a third distant war on behalf of rebels we know little about, even against the repugnant Kadafi government. The United States not only doesn't have any vital national security interests at stake, but it already has 100,000 troops on the ground in Afghanistan, 50,000 in Iraq and 18,000 more assisting Japan after the earthquake and tsunami. The U.S. and the international community have an important role to play in protecting populations from humanitarian crisis or genocide, but no one has proved that Libya is an especially compelling example of either, distinguishable from all the other tragic cases of brutality and war around the world. If there was intelligence evidence of the "violence on a horrific scale" that Obama warned of, what was it? The United States can't possibly fight all the dictators who raise weapons against their own people, no matter how much it might wish to.
Where do we go from here? Certainly the United States should continue its diplomatic efforts, economic sanctions and nonlethal aid; by all means, ratchet up the pressure on Kadafi. But whether those tactics will succeed in forcing him out is unclear. Maybe he'll decide to cut his losses and conclude that resettling in some out-of-the-way capital and living off whatever he can salvage of his stolen millions is a better option than going down with the ship.
But even if he doesn't, it's time for the Obama administration to begin recalibrating its objectives. It's time to think about brokering a cease-fire, a negotiated solution that includes protections for the rebels and civilians. Perhaps this will mean a de facto division of the country. Perhaps some democratic reforms can be negotiated. Those steps can be taken even as the world continues its nonmilitary efforts to urge Kadafi out.
The United States is fighting two other wars at the moment, both of which have proved long and frustrating, and there's little appetite for a third. American resources are limited, and a compelling case has not been made. Let's not get sucked in any further.