The Obama administration has tried to take a supporting role when it comes to Libya.
The White House waited until allies like Germany called for the ouster of Libyan strongman Muammar al-Qaddafi before following suit. U.S. diplomats sat by as other nations took the lead in drafting a resolution authorizing military force against Qaddafi and then pushing it through the United Nations Security Council.
And in his public comments in the runup to Saturday's initial air and missile strikes on Libya, President Obama made clear that he wanted the Pentagon to play a mainly secondary role and leave the heavy lifting to other countries like France and Britain.
"This is not an outcome the U.S. or any of our partners sought," Obama said from Brazil, pointedly noting he had authorized only "limited" military operations against Libya and that no American ground troops would be involved. "We cannot stand idly by when a tyrant tells his people there will be no mercy."
Rhetoric aside, however, the escalating war against the Qaddafi regime is already looking like it will be U.S.-led and American-dominated.
French warplanes launched the first set of aerial sorties against Libyan targets, and U.S. allies like Britain, Canada, Jordan, and even the tiny United Arab Emirates are contributing planes, helicopters, and other military assets. But it is the Americans who have landed the biggest blow yet against Qaddafi's forces: a barrage of 112 Tomahawk cruise missiles that blasted nearly two dozen Libyan radar installations, air defense installations, and other targets. And so-called "Operation Odyssey Dawn" is under the command of a four-star American general, Carter Ham. The coming waves of air strikes that will begin on Sunday will also be under the tactical direction of U.S. Adm. Samuel Locklear, who has on-the-scene control from aboard the USS Mount Whitney, the flagship of the Navy's Sixth Fleet.
On Sunday, American B-2 bombers struck targets in and around Tripoli as the U.S.-led coalition stepped up its military campaign and began hitting Libyan military airfields. Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told NBC's Meet the Press that coalition aircraft were now flying round-the-clock missions over Benghazi to protect the de facto rebel capital from strikes by Qaddafi loyalists. Mullen said "effectively, the no-fly zone has been put in place," and said the U.S. was preparing to potentially assist the rebels by jamming Qaddafi's communications and providing intelligence support.
"At the end of the day, when all the talking is finished, my experience has been that the only one with the capabilities to actually pull something like this off is us," retired Navy Adm. Willliam Fallon, the former head of the military's Central Command, told National Journal. "These other countries just don't have the assets -- the dozens of refueling tankers and surveillance planes -- you'd need to make a no-fly zone work."
Vice Adm. Bill Gortney, the director of the U.S. military's Joint Staff, told reporters on Saturday that American and British warships and submarines used the cruise missiles to degrade Libyan air defense systems near the capital of Tripoli and the Qaddafi-held city of Misrata. Gortney said the strikes were meant to "enable" the imposition of a fuller no-fly zone by making it safe for coalition warplanes to operate in the skies above Libya. He said U.S. Global Hawk drones would soon fly over Libya to assess whether the systems had been taken out and strongly suggested that American warplanes would soon join the French and the British planes already flying over the country.
"We are on the leading edge of a coalition military operation," Gortney said. "This is just the first phase of what will like be a multiphase operation."
Some 25 coalition ships, including 11 American naval vessels like the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier Enterprise, are already in the Mediterranean. Gortney said the U.S. military had surveillance aircraft and aerial refueling planes which are likely to see action even before American warplanes start hitting targets on the ground in Libya.
Gortney said the Pentagon hoped command of the operation would eventually be transferred from Ham to a different "coalition commander," presumably one who was not American. But Gortney gave no indication of when Odyssey Dawn would leave U.S. control.
Fallon, the former CentCom chief, said U.S. policymakers had yet to lay out a clear set of goals, timetables or explanations for how it would handle it if Qaddafi ignores the international pressure and continues his assault on rebel targets. "They haven't answered the question of 'what comes next,' and that's problematic," he said in the interview.
Senior Obama administration officials like Defense Secretary Robert Gates have publicly warned about the consequences -- seen and unforeseen -- of launching a third war in a Muslim country. Now that the bombs have started to fall over Libya, with American forces in the lead, the White House will soon find out whether those fears were justified.