Gingerly, gingerly — that’s how the Americans are approaching the presentational battle over Libya, if not the actual campaign itself. There is no bombast in the official broadcasts from
Washington, nor categorical intent. Instead we have Robert Gates emphasising, as he did yesterday evening, that the US will soon handover
"primary responsibility" for the mission to us or the French. Or there’s Mike Mullen, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, saying that "potentially one outcome" is for
Gaddafi to stay in power (see video above). The idea of regime change, or of deeper US involvement, is being downplayed all round.
What’s clear, perhaps even understandable, is that Obama & Co. are eager not to exhume the ghosts of Iraq. This cannot be — as popular perception would have it — another drawn-out
war fought largely in the West’s interests. But there are signs, already, that the restraint could backfire. Not only have the Republicans rounded on Obama for failing to clarify the scope of this mission, but the American media are starting to do likewise. An
article in today’s New York Times, for instance, is headlined, "Target in Libya is Clear; Intent is Not". The
Washington Post carries something similar. The collective
response to the idea that Gaddafi might remain after the bombs have fallen appears to be: a-wha?
This cannot be helpful for David Cameron as he prepares to debate the Libya intervention in Parliament this afternoon. On the one side, he has members of his Cabinet refusing to rule out the
use of ground troops. On the other, he has the American government reining in all expectations. Our Prime Minister has impressed so far with his clarity of purpose and of message. Now that he is
involved in a new coalition — one that spans the Atlantic, the Channel and the Mediterranean — that clarity may have to be muddied.