Don't expect a quick ending in Libya.
There's a real possibility that Moammar Gadhafi could stave off the United States and its international partners, clinging to power in a drawn-out and increasingly dangerous standoff.
Confusion among allies over their goals and who's leading the mission is complicating the matter.
President Barack Obama conceded the possibility that Gadhafi could stubbornly hang on, telling reporters in El Salvador, "Unless he is willing to step down . . . there is still going to be potential threats toward the Libyan people."
He added: "And we would continue to support the efforts to protect the Libyan people. But we will not be in the lead."
Gadhafi has a long history of digging in and enduring, after all. He has held power in the north African country for 42 years and survived U.S. airstrikes in 1986 against his compound in Tripoli.
This time, narrowly limited objectives for the allied mission, including assertions by Obama that Gadhafi himself isn't being targeted militarily, may encourage him to hunker down, surrounded by his followers and militiamen, and try to outwait and outmaneuver the West.
"In the short term, we'll beat them, in the long term, we'll beat them," Gadhafi declared Tuesday night in his first public appearance in a week.
Obama still says Gadhafi must go, but he stops short of saying just how that might happen, talking in broad terms of tools besides military action that the international community has to achieve the goal, including sanctions and the freezing of overseas assets.
Sen. James Webb, D-Va., a former Navy secretary, said Obama and his administration have "a very clear obligation now to come forward to the American people and to the Congress and state clearly what they believe the end point of this should be."
The beginning phase is murky enough, as allies argue among themselves over who should lead the mission and what the ultimate goals are.
"The fact is, day by day, we're going to confront the reality that a no-fly zone is probably a misnomer," Anthony Cordesman, a national security analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told the Associated Press. "If this structure can't stop Gadhafi's ground forces, then it fails.
"If we want to basically get rid of the regime, then we have to go much further and attack Gadhafi's centers of power and land targets," Cordesman said.
The narrowly defined military mission in Libya is to carry out Security Council Resolution 1973, which demands that Gadhafi's forces withdraw from rebel-held towns, establishes a no-fly zone to protect Libyan citizens, and insists on more access by civilians to water, food and other humanitarian supplies.
The search for a permanent command of the open-ended operation marks the next phase in the intricate diplomacy surrounding the mission. The Washington Post reported Tuesday night that the United States appeared to be closer to turning over command of the military operation, with key NATO countries tentatively agreeing that the alliance would take the leading role.
"Clearly we have a coalition that is going to include nations other than NATO allies and that not every single NATO ally is going to be participating in the enforcement of the no-fly zone." Obama's deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes told reporters traveling with the president. "So I think what we're working through is how to leverage the capabilities within NATO as a part of a command structure that is internationalized when the U.S. shifts."
Turkey, the only Muslim-majority member of NATO, had opposed proposals that would place the operation under the alliance's control. Obama called Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Monday evening, and, according to the Post, White House officials suggested Tuesday that Turkish opposition to a large NATO role has faded.
On Tuesday, Obama called the emir of Qatar, Sheik Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, the only Arab leader to pledge military assets to the mission. He also called French President Nicolas Sarkozy and British Prime Minister David Cameron.
The Post, citing U.S., French, and British officials, reported that NATO will take over, with the command working out of different operation centers, including naval facilities in Naples, Italy, and potentially air bases in Turkey.
A steering committee of representatives from participating countries would maintain political oversight, providing a non-NATO veneer important to Turkey, where public opinion is mixed over the Libyan mission. The model is similar to that of the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan, where troops belonging to NATO nations participate alongside non-NATO contributors.
That structure would also allow Arab participation in the decisionmaking. Neither coalition governments nor NATO has officially signed on to the agreement yet, and the Post reported that administration officials, aware of remaining sensitivities within the alliance and among its outside partners, said the issue was still under discussion.
According to the Post, NATO agreed Tuesday to take control of the arms embargo — largely a naval mission — and agreement was likely today on NATO command of a no-fly zone.
Still to be formally agreed is who will command the "protection" aspect of the mission, perhaps the most complicated element.
"I want to emphasize to the American people, because of the extraordinary capabilities and valor of our men and women in uniform, we have already saved lives," Obama said.
Still, Benjamin Friedman, a research fellow with the libertarian CATO Institute, suggested that "rhetoric about ousting Gadhafi notwithstanding, our policy serves to stalemate the civil war, effectively severing Libya. That seems a recipe for a long stay."