As someone who supported a Libyan no-fly zone from the earliest days of what once seemed like a revolution but now looks like a civil war, I have to admit that Operation Odyssey Dawn may be a perfect example of being careful about what you wish for.
To use a metaphor suitable for March Madness, Obama blew the fast break. The president, an avid hoopster, should understand the reference.
In basketball, a fast break is when the offense brings the ball down the court as quickly as possible so the defense doesn't have time to set up. It's all about the fluidity of the moment, pressing your advantages and keeping the opponent off-balance.
Obama went a different way. Back in February when the Libyan revolution was fresh and had momentum on its side, even a small intervention by the U.S. -- say, blowing up the runways at Moammar Gadhafi's military airbases or quietly bribing senior military officers -- might have toppled Gadhafi. Members of his government were resigning en masse. Pilots were refusing orders to kill fellow Libyans. Soldiers were defecting to the rebels. Libyan citizens openly defied the regime in Tripoli. Nearly everyone thought the madman's time was up.
That was the time to seize the moment, to give Gadhafi a shove when he was already off-balance. If the dictator had been toppled when the rebels were gaining strength, America's support would have been written off as incidental, with the Libyans taking credit for their own revolution.
But such an approach would have required America to run down the court alone, out ahead of its allies and the international community. For Obama the multilateralist, that would have been too much unilateral hot-dogging.
So Obama slowed things down to set up the play he wanted rather than the play the moment demanded. As a result, Gadhafi regained his balance.
Obama wanted a United Nations resolution, a coalition, the support of the international community, even the Arab League. It was as if his top priority was to launch a new war in the Middle East in a way that was exactly opposite from what George W. Bush did. And if that was the goal, he can hang his "Mission Accomplished" banner now; the French shot first.
I'd still bet Gadhafi's a goner. And if things go well and quickly in Libya, Obama will win a lot of political capital for his deft statesmanship, at least in the short term.
But there are real problems with Obama going to the corners, to use another basketball expression. In the heat of the moment, Obama could have taken out Gadhafi without much of an explanation. But now he must offer a rationale that's very hard to square with what's going on in the rest of the Middle East. Obama says Libyan rebels must be protected from a leader who would kill them "without mercy." OK, does that apply as well to Saudi, Yemeni, Bahraini and Iranian rebels? No? Why not?
And now that America is rescuing losing rebels rather than lending support to winning ones, we will "own" the next Libyan regime. Let's cross our fingers on that score.
Back when Obama seemed to be doing nothing, he was resolute that Gadhafi "must go." But now that he has taken action, we're fighting merely to protect Libyan citizens, as per the U.N. resolution authorizing force. If ousting Gadhafi is in our national interest, why settle for something less in exchange for international support? And what does it mean when -- as is already happening -- Obama's coalition of the willing starts to unravel?
Why does pursuing our national interest hinge on approval from the Arab League and U.N. Security Council -- including the votes of Bosnia-Herzegovina, Colombia, Gabon, Lebanon, Nigeria, Portugal and South Africa -- and not Congress? In the heat of the moment, it's understood that presidents can't always wait for congressional approval. But if we can wait for the Gabonese to say yes, surely we can wait for the U.S. Senate.
Obama, who campaigned on ending Middle Eastern wars, not starting them, wanted a war completely on his own terms. He got what he wished for.