By Jules Witcover

President Obama, calling for Moammar Gadhafi's departure while enforcing a UN use-of force resolution that explicitly stops short of seeking regime change, looks like a kid playing with matches.

The president's fingers have already been burned as Congress, allies and adversaries all demand clarification of this half-a-loaf approach of firing on Gadhafi's forces, which are attacking Libyan rebels and civilians, without targeting the man himself.

As Secretary of Defense Robert Gates warned in advance, imposition of a no-fly zone does not guarantee an end to the dictator's mayhem against his own people, and requires further military action that will not be antiseptic. Obama's pledge that U.S. ground troops will not be used is not likely to placate critics, nor will the paper transfer of the mission to NATO, which itself embodies American leadership and manpower.

Obama, on other occasions so famously cool and collected, has complicated his harmonious collaboration with the United Nations by inexplicably also declaring that Gaddafi "must leave," in spite of the UN Charter prohibition of imposing regime change on member countries.

Even within the administration, the message on protecting the Libyan people under attack but stopping short of getting rid of the chief perpetrator has been muffled. According to the New York Times, the White House reported that in a phone call between Obama and Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, they "underscored their shared commitment to the goal of helping provide the Libyan people an opportunity to transform their country, by installing a democratic system that respects the people's will."

That certainly sounded like advocating regime change, but Obama aides denied that interpretation. White House Press Secretary Jay Carney, peppered with questions about the confusion, adhered steadfastly to the position of split intentions.

Asked whether the articulated objective of protecting civilian life from Gadhafi's forces required that the Libyan strongman "leave power," Carney said, "it is separate from that. It is the policy and position of this administration, this government, that Moammar Gaddafi has lost the legitimacy to lead and that he should step down, that he should remove himself from power."

Carney went on to say the administration has "engaged in a number of actions -- unilateral and multilateral -- aimed at putting pressure on Moammar Gadhafi and those around him to convince him ... that he should leave power. Ultimately it is for the Libyan people to decide who their leaders should be and should not be. ... We are not engaged in militarily driven regime change."

The press spokesman also took heat from the White House reporters on the obvious effort to low-ball the engagement. "What is this military action? We've been asking, is it a war?" one inquired. "And if it is not a war--"

Carney broke in: "It is a time-limited, scope-limited military action, in concert with our international partners, with the objective of protecting civilian life in Libya from Moammar Gadhafi and his forces." The reporter persisted: "But not a war."

Carney: "I'm not going to get into the terminology. I think what it is certainly not is, as others have said, a large-scale military -- open-ended military action, the kind of which might otherwise be described as a war. There's no ground troops, as the President said. There's no land invasion. I think there is precedent for -- multiple, multiple precedents for this by presidents of both parties in terms of taking this kind of military action."

At the time the press secretary spoke, Obama himself had not addressed the whole matter to the American people, though Carney said he would be doing so, and that the administration had communicated on various occasions with congressional leaders. But many on Capitol Hill, and House Speaker John Boehner particularly, continued to balk at lack of consultation before the military actions began.

The last thing Obama needs right now is this sort of contention over his latest venture into crisis management. If he has hoped for a low-cost quick fix and exit, he may have bitten off more than he reckoned for. The Republicans lining up to challenge his re-election next year suddenly have new ammunition as they continue to question what they see as his indecision and lack of strong leadership.


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