The president's problems began well before he departed on his five-day sojourn south of the border. After all but ignoring anti-regime protests that began in Libya on Feb. 15, the O-Team flipped strategy on its head. Instead of deciding what needed to be done and finding allies to support it -- a process employed by American leaders for two centuries -- Obama turned the matter over to the United Nations and the Arab League to build an "international coalition" that could determine the outcome.
At the Pentagon, war planners were ordered to develop contingency plans for a no-fly zone over Libya. Warships, aircraft and Marines quietly deployed to the Mediterranean Sea -- an extraordinary process that continued despite requirements for U.S. military units to help Japanese relief efforts after the devastating earthquake and tsunami March 11.
By the time the U.N. Security Council finally passed Resolution 1973 on March 17 -- authorizing "all necessary measures ... to protect civilians" in Libya and "establish a ban on all flights" -- the U.S. Air Force, Navy and Marines were ready for action. French President Nicolas Sarkozy was ready to lead. Our president was not.
Unlike Francois Mitterrand, who denied Ronald Reagan's personal appeal to allow U.S. F-111s to overfly France for an attack on Gadhafi's terror bases in 1986, Sarkozy seized the moment and delivered a different message: "We're going with you or without you." The first airstrikes launched against targets in Libya on March 19 had nothing to do with a no-fly zone. French Rafale and Mirage aircraft attacked a Libyan armor column threatening rebel positions in Benghazi.
Later that evening in Brazil, Obama announced U.S. forces "will contribute our unique capabilities at the front end of the mission to protect Libyan civilians and enable the enforcement of a no-fly zone that will be led by our international partners." The euphemism "unique capabilities" refers to the intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance, signals jamming, fueling and long-range strike capabilities that most of our "partners" do not possess. The president also reiterated his oft-repeated pledge that "we will not deploy any U.S. troops on the ground."
This promise was "modified" on the night of March 21-22, when the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit launched an air-ground quick reaction force from the USS Kearsarge to rescue an Air Force pilot who had bailed out of his damaged F-15. In June 1995, the 24th MEU, deployed aboard the Kearsarge, rescued Air Force Capt. Scott O'Grady six days after his F-16 was shot down over Bosnia. This time, the pilot was recovered safely less than two hours after his plane went down.
The flawless rescue operation should be instructive to this White House. The sailors and Marines aboard the Kearsarge have a very clear, unambiguous mission. They know what needs to be done and are trained, "task-organized" and equipped to carry it out. They have a straightforward chain of command and can define success. Before they lifted off for their dangerous mission ashore, they were well aware of the likely consequences of failure. None of those factors applies to the rest of what we're doing in Libya -- or elsewhere in the Middle East.
By the time Obama returned to Washington on March 23, the Defense Department was telling the world, "We believe that air defense system elements are severely degraded or destroyed," and "the no-fly zone is established over Libya." All true. Now what?
The president, who has apologized all over the world for America's past errors and omissions, says we must pass "command" of operations in Libya to our "international partners" as his "coalition" fractures for lack of American leadership. Repeating the mantra "Gadhafi ought to leave" while saying "regime change is not our goal" not only is incoherent but also makes a mockery of the risks being taken by thousands of young Americans and Libyans. If toppling the tyrant in Tripoli isn't our objective, why are we in this fight?
While Obama dithers and tries to avoid offending anyone, Bahrain and Yemen descend further into turmoil exacerbated by Iran. Protesters are being gunned down in Syria. Hamas rockets and mortar rounds rain down on Israeli civilians as Islamic radicals butcher innocents with knives and bombs. The price of crude oil and the cost of motor fuel are heading up faster than a Tomahawk cruise missile. Meanwhile, "what's the mission?" has become a bipartisan refrain in our nation's capital. In a letter sent to the White House while our commander in chief was flying back to Washington, House Speaker John Boehner asked, inter alia, "How do you define success?"
Obama no longer can avoid answering these questions. This is no time for artful rhetoric and equivocation. Even a Nobel laureate must know that a leader who tries to placate everyone ends up pleasing no one.