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Obama and Libya: Tell us how this ends

By Gloria Borger, CNN Senior Political Analyst
  • Gloria Borger: On one level, it made sense for France, Britain to take the lead
  • She says Obama was seeking to de-emphasize U.S. role in Libya mission
  • President has said Gadhafi must go, but U.N. resolution didn't call for regime change
  • She says Obama has been vague on what the exit strategy is for the military intervention

Editor's note: Gloria Borger is a senior political analyst for CNN, appearing regularly on CNN's "The Situation Room," "AC360°," "John King, USA" and "State of the Union."

Washington (CNN) -- The story of the Libyan intervention may pain some of the most ardent believers in the proposition that it is America's role to take the lead, all of the time, everywhere.

But when the French and the British began the first sorties into Libyan airspace, it made an awful lot of sense: It's their neighborhood after all. And when the Arab League decided to support some kind of allied intervention, it seemed a powerful consensus was developing.

Then came the United Nations resolution, and the deal was sealed. Some complained that President Barack Obama had dithered and that it was too late for an effective no-fly zone. Others applauded his insistence on not going it alone. Put me in that camp: Without a strategic reason for unilateral U.S. military action, this is clearly a humanitarian effort. And a worldwide one.

So if the president has done the right thing, why does it feel as if something is wrong?

It's hard to pinpoint exactly, but there's an amorphous and unsettling nature to this action. On the one hand, there is one coalition goal that has been explicitly stated and affirmed: This is an effort to keep Libyan leader Col. Moammar Gadhafi from murdering his own people. Yet there's another goal here -- an implicit one -- that suddenly no one can explain in any great detail: Gadhafi has to go.

It's something the president himself said two weeks ago. And on Monday, he labored to separate his own words (as in, the end of the Gadhafi regime is "U.S. policy") from the wording of the U.N. resolution (the humanitarian protection of the Libyan people).

In other words: We know the ouster of Gadhafi is part of the preferred endgame. But we can't make it part of the official coalition plan because regime change is nowhere in it.

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The president has stated the obvious: The military operation is there to prevent a bloodbath. But we know that the military, political and financial pressure is also there to remove Gadhafi.

So we understand the ultimate goal, but the coalition can't spell it out. Nor can we do it, exactly -- at least not as a stated goal. (And the generals were out in force over the weekend explaining that indeed, Gadhafi could potentially remain in power.) So we're left with the prospect that once the rebels are no longer in danger of being overwhelmed by Gadhafi's forces, we will then proceed to the "tightening the noose" phase of the operation that will finally lead to Gadhafi's departure.

We hope.

And then there's this: How do we know when we have succeeded? How can we judge a humanitarian crisis averted? Sure, we can tell when the danger to innocent civilians has abated (because we have destroyed or dismantled Gadhafi's air capability). But if the core of that danger is a murderous thug who still reigns, can you only abate it by removing him? That's where the strategy gets a tad circular: How can you ensure the end of the killing unless you get rid of the hideous man ordering it?

Richard Haass, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations and who is no fan of this intervention, tells me that America's problem is an administration that is focused more on process than policy.

"This was based too much on getting support and not enough on a sustainable plan," he says. "I don't think we thought it through. Simply getting a coalition doesn't mean it's a good idea. Getting the Arab League doesn't make it a good idea. Multilateralism doesn't make the end better." In fact, it probably makes the intervention even more difficult to manage.

In theory, the Obama doctrine -- which is clearly attempting to change the storyline of American military intervention in the Arab world -- is a game-changer. In a way, Barack Obama is still behaving as he did as the editor of the Harvard Law Review, hanging back until a center of gravity is established. But in the specific case of Libya, the caution can be confusing: Try as we might, there's no way to keep American participation in any military action in the backseat, no matter who flies the first planes. There's no way to ensure that any multilateral coalition works. And, most important: Is there a way to leave if Gadhafi stays?

And if we win (whatever that means), who's left? Who are the Libyan rebels, if they are anything cohesive at all? And what if the civil war flares up after we tamp it down? Is that our problem? Or some other country's problem? Clearly, the ambiguity is exactly what Obama was trying to avoid.

As Illinois state Sen. Barack Obama said in 2002 in opposing the war in Iraq, "an invasion of Iraq without a clear rationale and without strong international support will only fan the flames of the Middle East." In Libya, he has a rationale (humanitarian) and a coalition (including the Arab League). What he doesn't have is a clear exit strategy.

Or if he does, he hasn't told us about it.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Gloria Borger.

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