It is what it is: Military engagement

So they’ve done it. The west, including the United States, has launched a military response to what’s going on in Muammar Gaddafi’s Libya. One hopes, for President Obama’s sake, that the course to which he is now committed, doesn’t come at a political price for which he and his advisers, including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, have not bargained.

Interestingly, the grapevine had it (as reported in a New York Times piece by Helene Cooper and Steven Lee Meyers) that it was three women – Clinton, U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice and senior foreign policy aide Samantha Power – who convinced Obama to go for the military option, leapfrogging the tough talk that had heretofore been the extent of Uncle Sam’s rumble-ready swagger. Score one for distaff power.

Undoubtedly, the president has to be carefully calculating the political implications for him of the moves he makes in the Libya situation. We can expect, as has already been the case, that there’ll be voices critical of however he opts to play it. And, who knows, it may well be that some of Obama’s hard-line rhetoric in the vein of “Gaddafi must go” and “The noose is tightening around Gaddafi’s neck” was engendered by a need he has felt to look and sound as hawkish as the best of them. Problem is, on the conservative side they will never buy it; a butt-kicking foreign policy veneer on the likes of an Obama will invariably be dismissed as shallow posturing.

Meanwhile, the president could find himself headed in a direction so strewn with obstacles as to unavoidably be turn-off city to many within his natural base. Obama is trying his best to placate folks who aren’t exactly thrilled about the U.S. getting involved in another military campaign even as the two he inherited drag on, seemingly with no outcomes in sight that are likely to be pleasing to Americans in overwhelming numbers. Little wonder that within the very administration there appears to have been, at best, halting acceptance in some quarters, of going the route of military action.

After he sounded so wary on the no-fly zone issue and a military undertaking generally, it’s understandable that Secretary of Defense Robert Gates reportedly would have signed off on direct engagement with Gaddafi only after getting certain assurances. In addition, a comment attributed to the top U.S. military man, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Adm. Mike Mullen, invites comparison with the “gun talk” directed at the Libyan strongman that has emanated from Obama after hostilities began between Gaddafi and his opponents. Commenting on the recently begun allied bombardment of Libyan targets, Mullen, referring to Gaddafi, was quoted as saying: “It’s not about seeing him go.” Hello?

From early in the Libyan uprising, in spite of the president’s uncompromising tone about what the U.S. demands of Gaddafi, some, admittedly not rabid Obama loyalists, have charged that there remained a murkiness about what the official policy was. Obama’s straddling maneuver – sounding tough about not standing idly by as civilians were slaughtered, while insisting no ground troops would be committed and it would be a limited U.S. involvement, if any – has been an easy target. Why so is no mystery.

Obviously, that the west would bemoan the loss of life in Libya and elsewhere in the Arab world’s wave of anti-government protests is a no-brainer. What has been more than a little puzzling is how the international outcry from folks who’ve had Gaddafi in their crosshairs has routinely defined the unrest in Libya as of a piece with Egypt, Yemen, Tunisia et al. Not making the distinction that Libya — where “rebels” raided military installations to arm themselves for battle – was a whole different scenario from largely peaceful street protests elsewhere, didn’t seem much of a bother to those chiming in about what was going down. But the unknowns in the Libyan conflict perhaps constitute a solid enough reason for the distance Gates and others seemed inclined to put between the U.S. and the explosive goings-on there.

Given the president’s “bad dude” impression as he sounded off on Gaddafi, he probably had no choice but ordering up American participation in the military effort aggressively championed by France and Britain. But these outsiders have all been so wrong in assessing the situation in Libya (witness Obama’s earlier declaration about “the noose tightening,” before the Gaddafi forces started regaining control), that one cannot but view with skepticism whatever they’ve hatched by way of a plan…more so beyond blowing Gaddafi and his supporters to kingdom come, if that’s where this allied onslaught is headed.

Neither does the allies’ track record inspire confidence that they really know who the “rebels” are, or whether the claim that there are indeed al Qaida elements among them is so much horseradish. Who can say that all hell won’t break loose if the Gaddafi regime is demolished, to the extent that conditions warrant a peacekeeping incursion? Does Obama’s promise of no American ground troops still hold then?

It’s tricky business, pouncing on what seems a golden opportunity to be rid of a disgusting guy. And despite the president’s determination to play this not in gung-ho interventionist fashion, but as the reluctant warrior, chances are if this undertaking gets messy – and there are myriad ways it can — he’ll be deemed just as culpable as if having gone the way of unabashed hawkishness.

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