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Libyan rebel supporters sit outside rebel headquarters decorated with revolutionary graffiti in the northeastern city of Benghazi, March 23, 2011. (FINBARR O'REILLY/FINBARR O'REILLY/REUTERS)
Libyan rebel supporters sit outside rebel headquarters decorated with revolutionary graffiti in the northeastern city of Benghazi, March 23, 2011. (FINBARR O'REILLY/FINBARR O'REILLY/REUTERS)

Allies are still scrambling to settle how the war in Libya will be run and by whom Add to ...

Unlike Harry Truman, President Barack Obama doesn't want the buck for the Libyan war stopping on his Oval Office desk. Instead, a two-headed command-and-control scheme is being devised.

The day-to-day war would be run by NATO's existing military chain of command but cut loose from the political constraints of NATO's requirement for unanimity. Meanwhile, an ad hoc committee of foreign ministers - so that non-NATO nations such as Qatar can be included - will provide broad political direction.

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Separating political oversight is intended to avoid the inconvenient reality that the alliance is deeply split and, for several nations, a NATO-badged war is intolerable

De-Americanizing the war will be largely symbolic. Senior U.S. officials, including NATO's supreme allied commander, hold key posts in the NATO military structure. Another senior American officer - commanding the multinational naval battle group in the Mediterranean - is running the naval blockade and commands the warships that have fired more than 180 cruise missiles that have, by far, caused most of the destruction. Long-range American bombers flying from Missouri come second.

American spy satellites, American U2 spy planes and American drones provide detailed imagery; targets will be selected and assigned. Pilots, including Canadian, Danish, Belgium, Qatari, British and French, will get their "missions" if not their "orders" from world's sole remaining superpower's chain of command. No other nation has the capacity to detect and plot a tank moving at night, intercept its radio traffic, determine whether it poses a risk and direct an orbiting war plane to destroy it, all within a few minutes.

Mr. Obama doesn't want the easily misconstrued appearance of another U.S.-led war against the third Muslim country in a decade. There is talk from Moscow and Tripoli of "crusades" and accusations that the U.S.-led war is about oil not saving Libyan civilians. So underplaying America's role has strategic value.

"We will have a military role in the coalition but we will not have the pre-eminent role," says Robert Gates, the Pentagon chief and only cabinet member Mr. Obama kept on from his predecessor George W. Bush.

Handing off the war as soon as possible to NATO would seem the obvious choice and Mr. Obama keeps pressing for it. But the 28-nation alliance is both split - key countries including Germany and Turkey oppose the bombing - and unwieldy.

Senior military officers recount with dismay the bureaucratic nightmares during the NATO-run air war to drive Serb forces out of Kosovo in 1999. Missions were scrubbed and delayed while diplomats from member countries vetoed targets they found too unsettling to bomb. One ambassadorial "Non" or "Nein" and the target was spared because NATO is hobbled by consensus.

A NATO-plus hybrid, such as the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) that runs the Afghan war, might also work but it could be seen as little more than a fig leaf. The U.S. lead in the Afghan war is so evident as to be unquestioned. The U.S. commander, General David Petraeus, is both the American and the NATO commander.

Finding a way to let the (predominantly American) NATO command-and-control structure run the war and mask the primacy of U.S. war planes and warships remains a tricky political minefield.

NATO failed again Wednesday after a day of ambassadorial wrangling to find an acceptable sleight of hand. So Wednesday's targeting, missions, command-and-control was - as during the first days of the war - American.

The naval blockade - another "act of war" authorized by the UN Security Council - is being treated as a separate operation. Turkey will send warships. But Germany has pulled two frigates, usually assigned to NATO's multi-national flotilla, from the force. It is also threatening to pull the 100 airmen currently on NATO surveillance aircraft, known as AWACs, directing war planes to targets in Libya.

Meanwhile, the war - run by the United States - goes on. It may continue until next week without any formal change in political direction.

In announcing talks in London for Tuesday, France's Foreign Minister Alain Juppé has suggested the creation of "a political-steering operation that would unite the foreign ministers of the states involved."

In the meantime, Mr. Obama may be worried about the so-called Pottery Barn rule. That now-famous, "you break it, you own it" caution from Colin Powell, then the secretary of state to Mr. Bush, was disregarded by the president who dismissed the risks of instigating a war to topple Saddam Hussein.

 

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