Moammar Gadhafi may be a creep, but there's another one that Americans revile more: Mission creep.
President Obama promised no "boots on the ground" in Libya -- but that was true only inasmuch as CIA operatives apparently wear shoes. Yes, we're on the ground in Libya.
There's also talk now of supplying the rebels; Britain is talking about "non-lethal equipment." Maybe shoes? Maybe boots? Once we're supplying one side, then what? Do we let them lose? Or do we do more than supply them?
Unless Gadhafi's regime melts down faster than a Japanese nuclear reactor -- and there is a slight chance of that, after high-level defections in the past week or so -- it's hard to see how this ends well for the Obama administration. At this point, with the CIA-aided rebels losing ground and mission creep starting to set in, it's somewhere between the Bay of Pigs and Vietnam.
The problem with part-time warfare is that you're putting your prestige on the line: Can the Obama administration be content to patrol the skies and allow the "good guys" to be routed? How invested are we in this civil war?
As much as the administration dithered on going into Libya, the end game was poorly thought out. We can't even be sure the "good guys" are all that good: Administration officials admit whiffs of al-Qaida in the rebel camp. A report on Monday claimed al-Qaida was using the Libya conflict to arm itself.
Some suggest the logical next step is for coalition forces to target Gadhafi's heavy military equipment, whether it's on the offense or not. That would help level the playing field for the rebels, and perhaps demoralize any high-ranking Gadhafi loyalists who may be quietly on the fence. But neither the United Nations mandate nor NATO policies may allow such strikes.
The idea going in was supposed to be to protect civilian populations -- but coalition strikes have killed civilians and even rebel forces stupid enough to draw attention by firing into the air.
The bottom line is, the goal of this campaign seems maddeningly elusive even weeks into it. The public knows it, too: Nearly 60 percent say the president hasn't stated a clear goal; almost half oppose the Libyan intervention; and the president's own approval ratings are at record lows. As a Los Angeles Times blog noted, incursions into Iraq, Afghanistan and even Somalia earned more public support: 76 percent, 90 percent and 65 percent, respectively.
Mr. Obama may hope to be able to blame NATO if the handed-off operation goes awry or is seen as having been defeated by a resurgent Gadhafi.
Ask anyone from the Kennedy administration how that works.