While Washington has been consumed by the battle of the budget, the people running the real war in Libya seem to have given up hope of using American and NATO firepower to drive Moammar Gadhafi from power.
"There is no military solution to this conflict," NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said recently. "We need a political solution, and it's up to the Libyan people to come up with one."
"There will not be a military solution to the problem," said French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe.
"We will not see a military solution in Libya," said German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle.
All agree, as does President Obama, that there is no good future for Libya without Gadhafi's departure. Yet it appears Gadhafi's chances of hanging on to power have improved markedly since NATO took over military operations from the U.S.-led Operation Odyssey Dawn. Under NATO's Operation Unified Protector, Gadhafi has turned a situation in which the end of his rule seemed imminent into one in which he might well remain in control of at least part of Libya.
At the moment, Operation Unified Protector is anything but unified. Britain and France, with American support, are doing most of the work of enforcing the no-fly zone and attacking ground targets. Some NATO members, like the Netherlands, will not participate in missions to hit targets on the ground. Others, like Italy, won't let pilots fire on anything. And still others, like Germany, Poland and Turkey, have refused to take part at all. As far as the much-ballyhooed participation of Qatar and the United Arab Emirates is concerned -- well, it has been mostly symbolic. With such a fragmented coalition, NATO foreign ministers who met last week in Berlin are desperate to convey an image of unity. "All of us agree: We have a responsibility to protect Libyan civilians against a brutal dictator," Rasmussen told the meeting. But when a reporter asked a simple question -- "How are you going to achieve the aim of getting rid of Gadhafi?" -- Rasmussen had virtually nothing to say. And when another reporter asked whether the secretary general could convince any other NATO countries to take a more active role in the operation, Rasmussen could only respond, "Well, I don't have specific pledges or promises from this meeting, but I heard indications that give me hope."
Meanwhile, much of the Obama administration appears to have tiptoed away from the Libya adventure. Obama has not uttered the word "Libya" in quite a while (although he did mention it in an April 7 written statement marking the anniversary of the massacre in Rwanda). The Pentagon stopped holding press briefings specifically on the Libyan operation once command was transferred to NATO. And now there is confusion about what American forces are actually doing in the skies over Libya.
When NATO took charge, the United States said it was pulling out of attack missions. "We will not be taking an active part in strike activities," Defense Secretary Robert Gates told Congress on March 31. But recently there were reports that American planes have in fact struck ground targets, mainly Libyan air defenses. The Pentagon later confirmed those reports; it turns out that U.S. planes have hit Libyan air defenses three times since April 4. But military officials insist the attacks have not been "strikes." "We do not characterize those as 'strikes,' because (air-defense suppression) is considered a defensive, (not) offensive, mission," a Pentagon spokesman told the American Forces Press Service.
The only administration official saying much about Libya is Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who recently cited "disturbing reports" that Gadhafi's forces continue their attacks on civilians and have cut off water, food and power to the Libyan city of Misurata. The United States "condemns" Gadhafi's attacks, Clinton said, and is "gathering information about Gadhafi's actions that may constitute violations of international humanitarian or human-rights law." In other words, having virtually abandoned military force, the Obama administration might someday take Gadhafi to court.
When the war began last month, Americans were divided on whether U.S. troops should attack Libya. But it's safe to say that the vast majority of Americans wanted U.S. forces, once in action, to succeed. Allowing Gadhafi to withstand American attack and remain defiantly in power while the NATO powers dicker among themselves is not success. No wonder many people were skeptical when commander in chief Obama ordered U.S. forces into a new action for the first time.