NATO insisted that it would “remain impartial” in the Libyan conflict when it takes over command of Operation Odyssey Dawn, but the New York Times and CBS both report that the White House sounds a lot more interested in picking sides.  In fact, the ranking American commander in the coalition, General Carter Ham, warned today that without continuing airstrikes, the rebels would lose ground almost immediately:

“The regime still vastly overmatches opposition forces militarily,” Gen. Carter F. Ham, the ranking American in the coalition operation, warned in an email message on Monday. “The regime possesses the capability to roll them back very quickly. Coalition air power is the major reason that has not happened.”

The sober assessment came as President Obama prepared to address the nation on Monday night about the American role in Libya amid continuing questions about its objectives and duration.

General Ham said there had been some “localized wavering” of government forces, notably in Ajdabiya, to the east, but so far only isolated instances of military or government officials defecting to the opposition. His remarks came after American and European bombs battered the coastal city of Surt — the rebels’ next objective — in Colonel Qaddafi’s tribal homeland on Sunday night, permitting the insurgents to advance toward the city’s doorstep.

But news reports from Surt on Monday said there was no sign of a rebel takeover and the city seemed quiet. Nonetheless, some military vehicles and dozens of civilian cars loaded with personal belongings were seen heading west from Surt toward Tripoli, 225 miles away.

CBS also notes how this highlights the “central ambiguity” of the mission:

But the advance on Sirte and the flip-flop in the conflict’s momentum brought into sharper relief the central ambiguity of the international mission in Libya. When Qaddafi’s forces were besieging rebel-held cities in the east last week, allied airstrikes on his troops more directly fit into the U.N. mandate of protecting civilians. But those same strikes have now allowed rebels to go on the assault.

Russia on Monday criticized the international campaign, saying it had overstepped its U.N. mandate to protect civilians and had taken sides in a civil war.

NATO’s commander for the operation, Lt. Gen. Charles Bouchard of Canada, said his mission was clear, saying every decision was designed to prevent attacks on civilians. “Our goal is to protect and help the civilians and population centers under the threat of attack,” he said.

But in Brussels, NATO spokeswoman Oana Lungescu noted that the allied operation was launched in response to “the systematic attacks by Col. Qaddafi against his own people.”

The central ambiguity springs from a mission whose objective can’t be attained through the tactics it uses.  In order to effectively protect a population from genocide or at least massacre in the middle of a civil war, intervention requires boots on the ground to buffer between forces — and a willingness to use force to gain compliance, which the West lacked in Srebrenica.  Air power can only achieve that objective through the utter destruction of one side or the other, an option that almost guarantees the maximum amount of collateral damage.

Emotionally, it’s easy to pick sides in this conflict.  Moammar Gaddafi is a brutal dictator, the kind which does not balk at genocide to maintain power.  A popular uprising against such a tyrant is easy to cheer, but the act of taking sides requires those intervening to fully understand the alternatives at hand.  Thus far, Obama and the Western leaders who pressed forward with this intervention have done nothing to clarify the nature of the rebels, a gap that Andy McCarthy tries to fill this morning at The Corner:

I’d suggest that the real issue here is not whether Qaddafi was right, it’s that our government knew he was right . . . unless you think they were lying to us throughout the Bush years. Here, for example, is Secretary of State Condi Rice in 2006, explaining the Bush administration’s decision to restore diplomatic relations with Qaddafi:

“We are taking these actions in recognition of Libya’s continued commitment to its renunciation of terrorism and the excellent cooperation Libya has provided to the United States and other members of the international community in response to common global threats faced by the civilized world since September 11, 2001.”

The cooperation she to which she was referring primarily involved intelligence about al-Qaeda-affiliated terrorists (like the LIGF) in Libya. It was important because, as the Defense Department found, more Libyans (the kind of Libyans who are to be found among the “rebels”) traveled to fight against U.S. forces in the war on terror than the citizens of any other country by percentage of population.

By the time of Condi’s gushing 2006 tribute to Qaddafi’s cooperation, this provision of intelligence had been ongoing for three years. (And it didn’t just involve us — the report I cite above says, “Libya began working last year [i.e., 2005] with Britain to curtail terrorism by the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group and had extradited a suspect in a Cairo bombing to Egypt.”) The sharing of intelligence against Libyan jihadists also explains, in part, the Bush administration decision to take Qaddafi off the list of state sponsors of terrorism at that point — he was deemed to be an allyagainst jihadist terror, notwithstanding his blood-soaked history as an anti-American terrorist. It further explains why congressional Democrats like the late Tom Lantos strongly supported the Bush administration’s cozying up to Qaddafi (Lantos in 2006: “Libya has thoroughly altered its behavior by abolishing its program to develop weapons of mass destruction and ending its support for terrorism.”)

The cooperation continued apace, according to our government. That’s why, with great fanfare in 2008, the Bush administration formally settled past hostilities with Libya. At her meeting with Qaddafi that year, Secretary Rice again stressed the dictator’s cooperation against terrorists. She affirmed that “the relationship has been moving in a good direction for a number of years now and I think tonight does mark a new phase.” The important thing, Rice insisted, was “moving forward. The United States, I’ve said many times, doesn’t have any permanent enemies.”

We already know that one rebel commander fought for the Taliban in Afghanistan against us, which underscores Andy’s point.  Our air bombardment may be aiding the very kind of totalitarianism we’re trying to prevent in Afghanistan.  We know that Islamists were active in Libya during the Iraq War, because they sent Libyans to Iraq as suicide bombers to attack American forces.  In fact, that same commander took part in those operations.

If our mission is to help democracy activists wrest control of Libya from Gaddafi’s grip and install a legitimate, representative government, an air war against Libya coordinated with the rebels that had some chance of success would be worth it.  If the aim is to protect population centers from Gaddafis’ thuggery in order for Libyans to achieve self-determination, then moving ground forces into Libya would be worthwhile, as long as we had rules of engagement that enforced that mission.  But coordinating air cover for rebels who may or may not impose an equally brutal regime if given power isn’t just outside the announced scope of Odyssey Dawn, it’s outside the scope of common sense as well.