From this afternoon’s presser in Chile, here’s his attempt to square weeks of “Qaddafi must go” rhetoric with the fact that the resolution passed by the Security Council conspicuously omits any “Qaddafi must go” rhetoric. How to make that add up? If I understand his answer correctly, it’s simple: Emphasize that the U.S. will stay strictly within the parameters of the UN resolution, using military means only to protect Libyan civilians, but note that we’ll continue to use non-military means to force Qaddafi from power. Regime change is still official U.S. policy, in other words; it’s just that we’ll use sanctions and other diplomatic means to implement that policy, even though there are F-22s over Tripoli. Reminds me of Bush 41’s fateful decision not to push on to Baghdad and finish off Saddam after Iraqi troops had been expelled from Kuwait.

If you take this idea seriously, in theory an American pilot who spots Qaddafi’s convoy leaving from his bunker would be forced to let ’em go lest we violate the strict limits of the UN resolution. Anyone think that would happen, though? Particularly since (a) British bombs have already been falling conspicuously close to Qaddafi’s residence and (b) the entire unspoken strategy of this mission, such as it is, is to knock Qaddafi out quickly so that the rebels can overrun Tripoli and we can go home lickety split. What you’re seeing here, I think, is The One paying lip service to the alleged authority of international “collective action” even while he and his western partners quietly look to skirt that authority by taking out the Mad Dog with a quick strike. The big difference between him and Bush, as the left is learning, isn’t that one’s a cowboy and the other isn’t. It’s that Obama wears his sheriff’s badge on the inside of his vest, in case anyone abroad should see it and get offended.

As expected, with the first days of the air campaign going well, the public has rallied behind him and the mission. Last week, only 56 percent supported a no-fly zone; today, 70 percent do. If the coalition can knock out Qaddafi and the rebels advance quickly to the capital, this’ll be a great political victory for him, no matter how dodgy things eventually turn in Libya. In the meantime, though, he’s working hard to shore up that “international consensus,” phoning treacherous Arab League leaders to keep them onboard with a no-fly zone (with some success) and maybe leaning on his pal Medvedev to politely challenge Putin on the latter’s incendiary comment that this mission looks like a “medieval crusade.” I’m only speculating about O’s possible influence there, but I’m guessing Medvedev wouldn’t dare to correct Russia’s new tsar unless outside forces were pressuring him intensely to do so. The next “consensus” challenge: Getting NATO to take over this mission before Turkish demagoguery scares Italy into kicking the coalition off of its bases. David Cameron’s already talking publicly about a NATO handover. Expect a further push from O the next time he speaks about this too.

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Tags: Barack Obama