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Mission creep in Libya, whether Obama wants it or not

How are Americans to reconcile the Barack Obama who says Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi must go with the one who drags his heels on providing the military means to achieve his departure?

The president's schizophrenia on the Libya crisis has been revealed again by his decision, under pressure from his British and French allies, to start deploying unmanned drone aircraft in the North African civil war, under the guise of merely providing additional civilian protection.

The decision may technically adhere to President Obama's pledge that he will put no "boots on the ground" in Libya, meaning no uniformed American combat troops fighting side by side with the rebels. But it dances around the basic question of how he can appear not to be pursuing regime change there while actively doing so.

The attempt to be just a little bit pregnant in the struggle over control of Libya has only reinforced the growing image of Mr. Obama as a bandleader sounding an uncertain trumpet. From the start of the Libyan uprising, the president has sought to walk a narrow line between making a humanitarian response to an imminent massacre of civilians by the repressive Gadhafi forces, and wishful thinking about his ouster.

President Obama's split personality is obviously a product of his revulsion toward the naked use of U.S. military force that brought down Saddam Hussein in Iraq eight years ago. The words "regime change" became a profanity in liberal circles as a clear violation of the United Nations Charter. But President George W. Bush defended it on grounds of self-defense against imminent danger from those weapons of mass destruction that weren't there.

Mr. Obama, as a candidate for the U.S. Senate in 2002, opposed the Iraq invasion as a "dumb war," and thereafter vowed not to be a party to it, particularly not outside the UN structure. He was determined then to adhere to the true collective action that had long marked American foreign policy in World War II and through the Cold War.

Yet in his speech accepting the startling award of the Nobel Peace Prize even as he was fighting two wars in the Middle East, Mr. Obama defended the concept of the "just war" in cases "only when certain conditions were met: if it is waged as a last resort or in self-defense; if the force used is proportional; and if, whenever possible, civilians are spared from violence."

He also said then that "more and more, we all confront difficult questions about how to prevent the slaughter of civilians by their own government, or to stop a civil war whose violence and suffering can engulf an entire region. ... I believe that force can be justified on humanitarian grounds, as it was in the Balkans, or in other places that have been scarred by war. Inaction tears at our conscience and can lead to more costly intervention later. That's why all responsible nations must embrace the role that militaries with a clear mandate can play to keep the peace."

In what could be said now regarding Libya, Mr. Obama observed then that "somewhere today, in the here and now, in the world as it is, a soldier sees he's outgunned but stands firm to keep the peace. Somewhere today, in this world, a young protestor awaits the brutality of her government but has the courage to march on."

Mr. Obama's response in Libya on humanitarian grounds is in keeping with that speech, but his simultaneous insistence on calling for regime change without openly and fully committing the United States militarily to its achievement reveals the ambivalence and uncertainty of his position and actions. It is a posture that cannot fail to confuse, irritate and anger the "coalition of the willing" he has joined and now is contributing to with one hand behind his back.

President Obama's posture is also bound to encourage Mr. Gadhafi to stay his brutal course, and at the same time to make Americans wonder whether their president has not stumbled into another quagmire, no matter the validity of his humanitarian concerns. By seeking as well as cheerleading regime change under the rationale of civilian protection, he is contributing to mission creep, whether he so intends or not.

Jules Witcover is a syndicated columnist and former longtime writer for The Baltimore Sun. His latest book is "Joe Biden: A Life of Trial and Redemption." His email is juleswitcover@comcast.net.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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