By Jules Witcover

The sage who said you can't have your cake and eat it too wasn't familiar with Barack Obama. The president says he wants to get rid of Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi, but because the United Nations hasn't authorized regime change, he won't be using U.S. military power to achieve it.

His explanation for American military actions so far, however, included artful dodging on what U.S. forces are undertaking to accomplish that goal under the limited UN Security Council mandate to protect Libyan civilians from Gadhafi's threatened massacre.

While dwelling on the transfer of lead responsibility to NATO after the imposition of the no-fly zone over Libya, and America's reduced "supporting role" in the crisis, Obama soft-pedaled the heavy role American military leaders will continue play in the NATO operation. It now includes lethal air attacks on Gadhafi ground forces by U.S. pilots and planes.

Major news organizations have reported the use of low-flying American attack aircraft against Gadhafi troops advancing on rebel-held towns, including the de facto rebel capital of Benghazi, in what amounts to joining the opposition effort in an emerging civil war in Libya.

Obama in his speech said he had kept his pledge not to commit U.S. ground troops to Libya. And he denied administration pursuit of regime change, while pursuing it in this way. He boasted that "the United States has done what we said we would do," and "also what the Libyan opposition asked us to do," while keeping within the limits of the UN mandate.

"If we tried to overthrow Gadhafi by force," he insisted, "our coalition would splinter. We would likely have to put U.S. troops on the ground to accomplish that mission, or risk killing many civilians from the air. The dangers faced by our men and women in uniform would be far greater. So would the costs and our share of the responsibility for what comes next."

Those concerns clearly are valid, as is Obama's pointed decision to channel U.S. efforts through the collective action of a UN-sanctioned plan and coalition. At the same time, what he has authorized now goes beyond the earlier antiseptic concept of American air power to wipe out Gadhafi's air defenses and neutralize his air force.

His brief reference to "our share of responsibility for what comes next" is of course the problem. Obama in his only mention of the Iraq war of choice observed "to be blunt, we went down that road in Iraq," noting "regime change there took eight years, thousands of American and Iraqi lives, and nearly a trillion dollars. That is not something we can afford to repeat in Libya."

Yet whether the president chooses to acknowledge it or not, and whether the UN calls for it or not, getting rid of Gadhafi is the undeniable objective of the American involvement. And if Obama believes the rhetorical stealth is necessary to keep together the coalition that includes two Arab states, so be it.

The most important and significant aspect of Obama's defense of his decisions on Libya is his determined move away from the unilateralism of the previous administration, and toward a commitment to multilateralism in coping with international crises where a threat to American security is not directly involved.

As Obama said of the concept of the just war in accepting the surprising and clearly premature Nobel Peace Prize: "War is justified only when it meets certain preconditions: if it is waged as a last resort or in self-defense; if the forced used is proportional; and if, whenever possible, civilians are spared from violence. ... There will be times when nations, acting individually or in concert, will find the use of force not only necessary but morally justified."

Obama obviously believes what is going on in Libya meets that test. But he also is aware of the price the United States has paid in the recent past for its detour from true collective action, indicating he does not intend to take country down that road again. Having said Gadhafi must go, he need not act as if he isn't doing all he can to make it happen.


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