For decades, the United States has been the go-to power for other Western nations for leading international military endeavors. Now it is struggling to shed that image as it tries to dial back its role in confronting Libya, but it's been a rocky path.
Each passing day is drawing the Pentagon deeper and deeper into the ground battle in Libya against the forces of Col. Moammar Gadhafi.
This was driven home when NATO agreed late Thursday to take over just part of the military operations against Libya _ enforcement of the newly established no-fly zone, following days of discord and hard bargaining among its members.
U.S. officials were hopeful NATO also would assume responsibility for attacks on Gadhafi's ground forces and other targets, the toughest and most controversial portion of the operation. But that was still up in the air.
Otherwise, attacks on ground forces will continue to be overseen by the coalition nominally led by Washington. This is a responsibility the U.S. absolutely does not want to bear.
The last thing that President Barack Obama needs is to be left holding the bag on Libya. With U.S. budgets and troop levels already heavily strained by prolonged wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Obama can ill-afford overseeing another war in another Muslim country.
The administration clings to its insistence that it will not send U.S. troops into Libya. But it may be hard to stand fast.
"Because we were present at the creation, we are partly responsible for how this goes. And if it goes south, or toward any other end game that requires decision-making and further effort, we will be implicated at some level," said Michael O'Hanlon, a foreign policy fellow at the Brookings Institution.
"So if more military operations are needed in the future, let's say arming the rebels, we may have to be involved with special forces and helping to do that. There are all sorts of ways I can imagine us having to do more in the future, even if we don't have to do more now," O'Hanlon said.
Anders Fogh Rasmussen, NATO secretary-general, said in Brussels that the NATO alliance eventually could take more responsibility, "but that decision has not been reached yet."
Some NATO members, particularly the sole Muslim member, Turkey, have balked at any involvement in attacks on ground targets. NATO has no procedures for taking formal votes. All of its actions must be unanimous among its 28 members.
The U.S had hoped the alliance would reach a consensus Thursday for NATO to take full control of the military operation authorized by the United Nations, including the protection of Libyan civilians and supporting humanitarian aid efforts on the ground. It was not immediately clear when the allies could tackle these outstanding issues. The operation has cost the U.S. close to $1 billion in less than a week and has drawn criticism in Congress from members of both parties.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton suggested such a further agreement could come as early as next week. "All 28 allies have also now authorized military authorities to develop an operations plan for NATO to take on the broader civilian protection mission," she said. But lines of authority were anything but clear Thursday night.
The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the Libya airstrikes aren't the only major U.S. military involvements right now. Some 14 U.S. Navy ships and their aircraft, and 17,000 American sailors and Marines are deployed off the coast of Japan as part of relief efforts.
Whether rushing food and supplies to Japanese earthquake-tsunami victims or taking the lead in air strikes in Libya, the U.S. long has been looked to by its Western allies as the indispensable leader for international military operations.
After all, the U.S. has what the Pentagon calls "unique capabilities" to operate globally as the world's remaining military superpower, with annual defense spending 10 times higher than that of next-place China. No other country has the bombers, cruise missiles, aircraft carriers, refueling aircraft, and command and control facilities that the United States does.
Thus, Obama confidently took the lead in launching this past week's rain of airstrikes on Libya, some from a stealth bomber that flew from as far away as an Air Force base in Missouri. But he made clear he wanted to pass the reins quickly.
But Obama has had a hard time trying to persuade Western allies to let NATO take the lead of enforcing the no-fly zone that the U.S. was instrumental in putting in place. The effort has been shrouded in confusion over who should lead and what is the ultimate objective.
But it may turn out to be not so simple to claim a back seat. Being the indispensable world military power can have its liabilities.
Not wanting to follow the go-it-alone course that predecessor President George W. Bush projected, Obama set two hard-and-fast rules for American engagement in Libya: no U.S. troops on the ground and no involvement without other nations going along.
"It underscores these actions are international in nature," deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes said.
The U.S. has had a hard time persuading NATO to contribute more forces in the past in Afghanistan.
Obama has lately emphasized that the allied mission in Libya is intended to protect Libyan civilians against Gadhafi's wrath _ and not to remove the autocrat of 42 years from power. Yet these recent statements seem hard to square with the president's earlier insistence that Gadhafi must go.
Regardless of what role NATO or others eventually assume, "The U.S. is exercising de facto command because it has the special intelligence, targeting, and command and control assets needed to coordinate the effort," said Anthony Cordesman, a national security analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.