WASHINGTON -- In 1794, during George Washington's second term as president, Congress finally got around to appropriating funds to build six wooden-hulled frigates that were "sufficiently armed" to protect American shipping from pirates and fast enough to evade British and French "ships of the line." It wasn't enough. America needed an expeditionary force in readiness. It still does.
Just a decade after our first fleet was built, President Thomas Jefferson had to beg Congress for funds to deploy ships, sailors and Marines in adequate numbers to force pirates from Tripoli -- the present-day capital of Libya -- to stop them from seizing American merchant vessels and enslaving their crews. Now President Barack Obama faces a similar quandary -- too few ships and troops to protect American citizens and interests -- off the same coastline.
Ever since civil dissent began in North Africa late last year and spread throughout the Middle East, the O-Team's response has been fraught with indifference and uncertainty. It completely ignored Lebanese pleas for support against Hezbollah, which took over the government in Beirut. Obama offered the Iranian opposition movement no encouragement whatsoever. It wasn't until Jan. 14, when Zine El Abidine Ben Ali was fleeing Tunisia for exile in Saudi Arabia, that our president finally decided the despot's departure was a good thing. Then it took nearly three weeks of increasingly violent protests in Cairo's Tahrir Square for the administration to decide whether it liked Egyptian strongman Hosni Mubarak or not. It finally decided a military coup would be a good thing.
Now, with bloody rebellions in Bahrain and Yemen and Libya on the brink of civil war, the Obama administration appears stunned at how few options it has available. Last week, as tens of thousands of Libyans and foreign workers were attempting to escape the chaos for refuge in Egypt, Tunisia and Malta, Obama couldn't even mention the name of the dictator who had provoked the violence, Moammar Gadhafi. On Tuesday, the administration moved "boldly" in the United Nations to have Libya removed from the Human Rights Council -- and then turned over national security policy to 535 members of Congress.
Since then, the O-Team has been defending its "no policy is good policy" position before the Senate Armed Services, Senate Foreign Relations, House Armed Services, House Appropriations and House Foreign Affairs committees. The absence of coherence is evident even to the president's supporters.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, fresh from her victory over Libya in the Human Rights Council, told the solons, "Any intervention to assist those who are opposing Libya is very controversial within Libya and within the Arab community." But she went on to concede that "there may well be a role for military assets to get equipment and supplies into areas that have a need for them." That wasn't enough for Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., formerly known as a dove on the use of U.S. military force. He wants to create a no-fly zone over Libya to "prevent the slaughter of innocents on Libyan streets."
None of this sits well with Defense Secretary Robert Gates. He told the House Appropriations Committee on Wednesday, "There is a lot of, frankly, loose talk about some of these military options." He then warned, "A no-fly zone begins with an attack on Libya to destroy the air defenses." Meanwhile at the White House, press secretary Jay Carney was telling reporters, "We have not ruled any options out. The fact that the no-fly zone idea is complex does not mean it's not on the table."
"Complex" is a monumental understatement. From 1991-2003, the U.S.-enforced no-fly zones over Iraq required an extraordinary commitment of U.S. and British ships and aircraft. No fewer than two carrier battle groups were deployed continuously in the Persian Gulf. Scores of additional attack, fighter, intelligence collection, early warning, command and control, tanker, and rescue aircraft were based in neighboring countries. Most of those assets now are committed to operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. And for the first time in more than three decades, there are no U.S. aircraft carriers in the Mediterranean Sea. Meanwhile, Clinton assures us, "we are engaged in very active consideration of all the different options that are available."
There aren't many. In an effort to find assets for dealing with the crisis in North Africa, the White House finally ordered an amphibious ready group -- the USS Kearsarge (LHD-3) and the USS Ponce (LPD-15) -- north through the Suez Canal. Those ships soon will be joined by the USS Enterprise (CVN-65) and its strike group, which passed south through the canal just two weeks ago.
Unfortunately, the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit -- which deployed from Camp Lejeune, N.C., and is aboard the Kearsarge and Ponce -- is now in Afghanistan. To ensure there are indeed "options" for whatever it is the Obama administration decides to do, hundreds more U.S. Marines -- proud to call themselves "America's Expeditionary Force in Readiness" -- are making an unexpected trip to the Mediterranean. This president seems to have trouble deciding what to do. Be thankful the Marines don't have that problem.