President Barack Obama steps off Air Force One on his arrival in Rio de Janeiro,… (Vanderlei Almeida / AFP/Getty…)
Reporting from Washington — This is not the way American presidents go to war. The opening act is supposed to feature the president sitting solemnly in the Oval Office, explaining the reasons, laying out the goals, talking tough.
Barack Obama did not even announce the start to the third U.S. war in the Muslim world in a decade. He left that to his secretary of State who was in Paris, standing alongside a French president who a few months ago wanted to do more business with strongman Moammar Kadafi and was now claiming credit for leading airstrikes against him.
When Obama did emerge hours later, he stood at a lectern in the bottom of a convention center in Brasilia, capital of a nation that did not vote for the U.N. Security Council resolution authorizing military force. He went to pains to point out that the U.S. mission will be limited and not include U.S. ground troops. And he emphasized that U.S. forces were acting as part of a coalition that was enforcing international will.
Photos: U.S., allies launch attacks in Libya
There is an explanation for Obama's reluctance to swagger into war like his predecessor George W. Bush. This is a sensitive undertaking: deploying American military power into an Arab world still raw from the 2003 invasion of Iraq, at a time when its leaders — some of them long-term allies — are facing overthrow by their own people.
But Obama locked himself to the rebels' cause by declaring that Kadafi had to go during the heady early days of the uprising when they appeared to be on the march to Tripoli. When they proved unable to topple the dictator, Obama and his allies confronted the prospect of Kadafi hanging on, slaughtering his opposition, and making the U.S. president vulnerable to allegations he allowed the tide of Arab democracy to be turned back.
Using military force to dislodge Kadafi required soliciting help and political cover from Kadafi's Arab neighbors. But even some who back the intervention argue that Obama has failed to clearly explain why he has launched airstrikes against a despot in Libya, but has been unable to restrain American-backed autocrats in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Yemen from shooting live rounds at unarmed, pro-democracy protesters swarming in their streets.
That's why Obama went out of his way to show that the U.S. was taking a back seat in the whole affair, even as it clearly directed events and launched fiery salvos of Tomahawk missiles on the North African nation. Aides also made sure to get out the message that Obama is fully engaged in the Libyan crisis, assured of secure communications wherever he goes. They released detailed schedules of his briefings by senior advisors and of his calls with foreign leaders before the Tomahawks flew.
It made for an awkward first day of war.
"What we're seeing is Obama making a clear choice to at least give the perception that others are leading this intervention," said Ash Jain, a former senior State Department official. "That's a real change."
Yet this escalation into the unknown carries risks. U.S. troops are now involved in a third Muslim country, Libya, following on Iraq and Afghanistan. If saving the rebels requires deeper military involvement, the West could be portrayed, as Kadafi tried to do on Saturday, as 21st century crusaders, chiefly interested in Libya's rich oil fields. Radical Islamists will cite it as evidence of the West's anti-Islamic prejudice.
The Obama administration has faced bad-to-terrible choices since the Arab uprising began in Tunisia three months ago, and spread across North Africa and the Middle East, swallowing enemies and allies alike.
The Saudi monarchy not only keeps a chokehold on the global economy through oil exports (it is America's third-largest oil supplier), but has helped check Iranian ambitions.
In Egypt, Hosni Mubarak, the now-ousted president, kept the peace with Israel. Bahrain, where the regime is clinging to power with the help of Saudi troops, is home to the U.S. 5th Fleet, a crucial military asset in the Persian Gulf.
And U.S. counter-terrorism officials rely heavily on President Ali Abdullah Saleh's regime in Yemen to help fight one of Al Qaeda's most virulent affiliates. The CIA considers Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, as the Yemeni offshoot is known, as a more urgent threat than the core terrorist group based in Pakistan.
But for now, the mission in Libya is clearer than the long-term regional goals. The goal, unspoken but widely agreed, is the old staple of bringing down the government. Whether that will require more than the imposition of a no-fly zone — sustained bombing of military targets or command-and-control facilities, for example, or even ground attacks to support the ragtag rebel army — is anyone's guess.