As airstrikes forced Moammar Gadhafi's tanks to retreat from key positions, there were finally signs Wednesday that the mission and lines of authority are about to be clarified by the international coalition protecting Libya's civilians from being massacred by their own leader. That cannot come soon enough for the United States, which has neither the human nor financial resources to become bogged down in a third war.
The United States will participate in a meeting next week in London with officials from European, Arab and African nations to determine how to proceed in enforcing a no-fly zone over Libya and supervising the effort to prevent Gadhafi from slaughtering civilians. The idea would be for the NATO alliance to take over command of the military operations from the United States, while political oversight would be provided by a broader group including the African Union and the Arab League. While that compromise may evolve, it recognizes that NATO is the natural leader of the military effort and keeps the shaky Arab states on board. The broader the coalition that keeps the pressure on Gadhafi, the better.
The Obama administration has received deserved criticism for its handling of the evolving crisis in Libya. First the president moved too slowly to help protect the rebels from being overrun by Gadhafi's military even as France and Britain demanded action. Then he did not properly keep Congress informed as the U.N. Security Council endorsed "all necessary measures" to protect Libya's civilians and he deployed American forces. While France's airplanes struck first over the weekend, this has been an American-led military effort.
Despite the messiness, the president reached the correct conclusion. Gadhafi has no regard for human life, supports terrorism and is despised around the world, including among his Arab neighbors. The United States and the rest of the international community could not stand by as this dangerous dictator ordered his troops to attack his own citizens. It also was important to ensure this was not a unilateral action by the Obama administration but a broad-based response by a remarkable coalition of countries.
Yet the president is going to have to provide more clarity — as House Speaker John Boehner demanded Wednesday — to a delicate situation that still could end badly. Obama should remain firm in his commitment not to deploy American ground troops. He also should continue to press to hand over direction of the military operation to NATO, an adjustment that still will require considerable involvement by the United States. Even trickier is defining the ultimate objective. While the coalition's immediate aim is to protect Libyan civilians from slaughter, Obama has acknowledged the obvious: For long-term stability, Gadhafi has to go.
The best outcome would be that the international coalition enforces the no-fly zone and protects Libyan citizens, and the rebels regain enough strength to defeat Gadhafi. The United States cannot become mired in Libya as it is in Iraq and Afghanistan. If Gadhafi holds on, it would be terribly difficult to provide open-ended protection for Libyans who would face certain death for their pursuit of democracy and a better life.