“President Barack Obama insisted Monday that the U.S. military’s mission in Libya is not confused, even though the aerial attacks unleashed against Col. Muammar Qadhafi’s regime two days ago aren’t intended to force him out of power.

“‘It’s very easy to square our military actions and our stated policies,’ Obama told a press conference in the Chilean capitol, where he is at the midpoint of a five-day swing through Latin America.”

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“Because liberal wars depend on constant consensus-building within the (so-called) international community, they tend to be fought by committee, at a glacial pace, and with a caution that shades into tactical incompetence. And because their connection to the national interest is often tangential at best, they’re often fought with one hand behind our back and an eye on the exits, rather than with the full commitment that victory can require…

“Our coalition’s aims are uncertain: President Obama is rhetorically committed to the idea that Qaddafi needs to go, but Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, allowed on Sunday that the dictator might ultimately remain in power. Our means are constrained: the U.N. resolution we’re enforcing explicitly rules out ground forces, and President Obama has repeatedly done so as well…

“The ultimate hope of liberal warfare is to fight as virtuously as possible, and with the minimum of risk. But war and moralism are uneasy bedfellows, and ‘low risk’ conflicts often turn out to be anything but. By committing America to the perils of yet another military intervention, Barack Obama has staked an awful lot on the hope that our Libyan adventure will prove an exception to this rule.”

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“Once committed to hitting enemy forces on the ground, though, U.S. leaders faced a problem built into the U.N. mandate to protect civilians. Are opposition fighters civilians? Are they military? What about civilians who are loyal to Gadhafi? Do they warrant protection, too? Gen. Ham, speaking to reporters from his headquarters in Stuttgart, Germany, on Monday, had some difficulty sorting it out.

“‘It’s a very problematic situation,’ Ham said. ‘It’s not a clear distinction, because we’re not talking about a regular military force. Many in the opposition truly are civilians, and they are trying to protect their homes, their families, their businesses, and in doing that some of them have taken up arms. But they are basically civilians.’…

“Ham was asked what U.S. forces are instructed to do when they encounter pro-Gadhafi military units that are heavily armed but aren’t actually attacking civilians. ‘What we look for is, to the degree that we can, to discern intent,’ Ham explained. He described a hypothetical situation in which an American pilot spotted a Libyan unit south of Benghazi. If the pilot determined the unit was moving toward the city, he could attack. If he determined the unit was setting up some sort of position, he could also attack. But if he determined the unit was moving away, then he couldn’t attack. ‘There’s no simple answer,’ Ham said. ‘Sometimes these are situations that brief much better at headquarters than they do in the cockpit of an aircraft.'”

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“Confusion within Britain’s political and military leadership opened up as David Cameron and cabinet colleagues argued the Libyan leader, Muammar Gaddafi, may be a legitimate target while the Chief of the Defence Staff, Sir David Richards, said he was ‘absolutely not’.

“The clash fed a growing concern on the third day of the air assault against Gaddafi that the international alliance is unclear about its ultimate war aims in Libya.”

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“Is there an endgame here?”

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