With Libya, Obama Nears First Conflict He Didn't Inherit

President Obama is about to enter a new chapter as commander-in-chief of U.S. forces.

Until now, the president has been able to talk of the two wars he has overseen as inherited.

But with the decision to join France, Britain, and seven other members of the U.N. Security Council to approve a military intervention in Libya, including a no-fly zone, he appears about to commit U.S. forces in his own name for the first time.

By moving to stop Col. Moammar Gadhafi's forces from crushing the beleaguered rebels, Obama has clearly decided not to be ultimately deterred by the cautions expressed recently by Defense Secretary Robert Gates.

Gates had warned that a no-fly zone was unmistakably an act of war because it would require strikes, either by the United States or its allies, against anti-aircraft batteries. His point was that policymakers shouldn't take that step lightly.

After moving deliberately, as is his habit, President Obama decided to go for the more muscular approach known to be the choice of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, senators John McCain (R-AZ) and John Kerry (D-MA) and others.

For Obama, moving against Gadhafi now has benefits and risks.

The upside for the president is that he will no longer be exposed to criticism that he stood by as forces loyal to Gadhafi butchered rebels and innocent civilians in retaliation for their uprising.

Such criticism would have grown especially harsh once images of Libyans slaughtered by Gadhafi and his troops began appearing on cable channels and online news sites. Already some are framing the killings being conducted by pro-Gadhafi as genocide.

With the start of the 2012 primary season less than a year away, there was a growing chorus of indignation from potential Republican challengers about his failure to act.

But now, many of the considerations that caused the president to move slowly in the first place could become vexing issues for Obama.

For instance, there are major questions about whether a no-fly zone will even succeed. Gadhafi's forces have been using pick-up trucks outfitted with heavy weapons, tanks and field artillery pieces to attack the rebels.

That raises the question of what happens if the no-fly zone proves ineffective. On CNN Thursday evening, Gen. Wesley Clark (ret.) warned that now that the decision has been made, the U.S. and its allies cannot afford to fail, presumably because that would embolden Gadhafi and other dictators.

From the Washington Post:

"Are you willing to escalate if it doesn't work?" asked Anthony H. Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, who has studied Libya's military capabilities. "Will they even bother" to challenge a no-fly zone?

Cordesman noted that Gaddafi has not relied heavily on air power to battle the rebels and could choose not to fly his Soviet-era fighter jets while continuing to attack the opposition with artillery and ground forces.

Retired Air Force Gen. Charles A. Horner said the administration should ask itself why it wants to intervene, and what it expects to achieve, rather than how it plans to intervene. Horner said those basic questions have yet to be clearly answered.

"The air power that he's using now has some impact on the rebels, but what they are dying from is artillery," Horner said. "Next step, you say let's start bombing the artillery. The next step would be to take out his tanks. The next step would be targeting his ground forces. And then you've sided with the rebels in an all-out war. But what is the cost and what are our interests?"

Meanwhile, maintaining a no-fly zone will require a significant commitment of equipment and personnel, as NPR's Tom Bowman reported earlier this month on Morning Edition.

With a U.S. military stretched thin after nearly a decade of war in both Iraq and Afghanistan and the surge of U.S. troops and support units into the latter, Gates and other American military officials are reportedly worried about further demands on the military. An engagement in Libya would pull resources like drones away from Afghanistan.

There are also profound questions about the rebels themselves, precisely about who they are.

Administration officials, including Clinton, have met with some members of the opposition and gotten some clarity. But concerns remain that not enough is known about many of the rebels.

It's feared that some may be Islamic militants. That has created anxieties among policymakers that the U.S. could, by aiding the rebels, head down the same familiar path of unintended consequences it trod in 1980s Afghanistan.

There the CIA armed the mujahadeen in their fight against the Soviets during the 1980s. And, of course, it was from those fighters that Osama bin Laden sprang.

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