The Obama administration has said its purpose in Libya is to protect civilians and not to choose a new government for the country — or to oust Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi through military means.
But while the president is still talking of limits to the intervention, many outside observers are pointing to actions that have stretched beyond what was called for under the U.N. Security Council resolution authorizing the bombing campaign.
These lines drawn around U.S. goals in Libya are fuzzy for a reason, analysts say.
"On paper, we're just protecting the rebels from Gadhafi's attacks," says Lawrence Korb, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, a progressive think tank. "But in reality, when you're protecting them, you're siding with them."
The reason we don't say that we're targeting Gadhafi, which in fact I think we're doing, is that there isn't a consensus within the international coalition to say explicitly that that's what we're doing.
In a speech Monday night, President Obama appeared to be openly rooting for the success of the rebels opposing Gadhafi. He reiterated the notion that the U.S. and its allies would not make Gadhafi himself a military target — yet Obama said he wants Gadhafi to go.
"The reason we don't say that we're targeting Gadhafi, which in fact I think we're doing, is that there isn't a consensus within the international coalition to say explicitly that that's what we're doing," says Michael Desch, chairman of the political science department at University of Notre Dame. "Obama has been doing this Kabuki dance almost from the get-go. The U.N. Security Council resolution is not nearly as expansive as what we'd like to do."
Siding With The Rebellion?
The administration and NATO have moved beyond the initially stated goal of protecting civilians, says Alan Kuperman, an expert on humanitarian interventions at the University of Texas. Targeting Gadhafi's forces not as they attack rebels but as they retreat, as well as within the capital of Tripoli, is "fully incompatible with the U.N. resolution," Kuperman says.
In his speech Monday, Obama appeared at moments to be rooting for the rebellion. He noted, for instance, that U.S. forces had "hit Gadhafi's troops in neighboring Ajdabiya, allowing the opposition to drive them out."
By preventing the rebels from losing, the U.S. is in fact choosing sides, Kuperman says. But openly saying the U.S. is siding with the rebellion would "undermine" U.N. authority, he says, even more than exceeding the Security Council's writ in practice.
Targeting Gadhafi – Or Not
If the president's goal is, as he says, "to hasten the day when Gadhafi leaves power," why not make Gadhafi a military target?
There are a number of reasons, scholars say. For one thing, targeting Gadhafi explicitly would, again, fracture the international coalition.
"We'll never say we're engaging in a decapitation strike," says Desch, from Notre Dame. "It's almost always framed in the context of 'eroding command and control,' which is an interesting euphemism."
Targeting a foreign leader for assassination is not only a dicey business, but it's also illegal absent an executive order, says Korb, the former Defense Department official.
Obama can achieve the political goal of getting rid of Gadhafi without making him a military target, Korb says, through use of instruments such as sanctions and other diplomatic means.
"We won the Cold War basically without firing a shot," he says.
You Break It, You Buy It
There are practical as well as political and legal reasons why Obama hopes to achieve regime change through nonmilitary means.
The president does not want to create a situation where, by ousting a nation's leader, the U.S. would be responsible for that country's political transition and postwar reconstruction, says Nora Bensahel, deputy director of studies at the Center for a New American Security.
The president has made it quite clear that he doesn't want the U.S. responsible for having to pick up the pieces in Libya, as it was in Iraq after chasing out Saddam Hussein.
"Regime change there took eight years, thousands of American and Iraqi lives and nearly a trillion dollars," Obama said Monday. "That is not something we can afford to repeat in Libya."
But Obama's decision not to go all in and explicitly push for regime change through military means is to some extent tying his hands, Bensahel suggests.
"Not getting involved in another reconstruction is to some extent limiting his choices," she says. "And he hasn't explained how the tools he's put on the table will achieve the particular objective he set out."
What About Ground Troops?
President Obama has ruled out the use of ground troops in Libya for a number of reasons. For one thing, the costs associated with the mission would go up exponentially.
"Between Iraq and Afghanistan, we're pretty much tapped out in terms of boots on the ground," says Notre Dame political scientist Michael Desch. "Even if we weren't, the willingness of the American public to support yet another major ground war is very minimal in my view."
In addition to domestic political constraints, the idea of U.S. ground troops operating in Libyan territory would upset both European allies and neighboring Arab states, says Nora Bensahel, a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security.
"There's no desire in the administration to commit ground forces to an operation that would be very long and very drawn out," Bensahel says. "It would be a commitment of an entirely different order than what we're seeing now."
But the American military could rise to the challenge of putting troops into the field, and the public would rally behind them, suggests Kori Schake, who served in the State Department under President George W. Bush and is now a research fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution.
The real limits are Obama's own intentions, she says.
"I don't think the president's anywhere committed enough to the goal of removing Gadhafi to pay that high a price for it," she says.