President Obama portrayed the need for the U.S. to act against Libya as a question of humanity -- local villain Moammar Qaddafi was poised to destroy one of his own cities, Benghazi, because it was giving shelter to anti-government rebels. If America hadn't prevented it, Qaddafi could've killed thousands, or tens of thousands, of rebels and local innocents, the White House argued. That didn't happen. But what was the price for stopping this massacre? A deeply politicized quasi-war in which Washington chose to interpret its authorization to act as insufficient to just remove Qaddafi or help anti-government forces bring about a decisive conclusion. To keep from owning another foreign adventure, Obama's only solid goal in the early days of the operation was to hand responsibility for it over to NATO.
This lack of follow-through makes the U.S. "an immoral superpower," writes Dan Goure of the Lexington Institute: "What can one say about a nation, a superpower, that starts a war ostensibly in order to save innocent lives and then walks away from the conflict taking its unique military capabilities with it and thereby ensuring that it is prolonged and those same civilians suffer? This goes way beyond the bystander watching an old lady getting mugged on the street but not intervening. That is irresponsible. This is more like seeing a person standing on the ledge of a tall building and urging him to jump."
Whatever you make of Goure's argument, it's symptomatic of a larger problem for the White House on Libya. Normally, Americans rally 'round the flag when service members are in danger overseas. But by pursuing a limited course against Qaddafi in order to keep a low profile at home, Obama also left himself wide open for political blowback, which has attended these operations at every turn. Congress, which can't even act to fund the basic operations of the federal government, dragged Secretary Gates and Adm. Mullen through a marathon of hearings so members could show how peeved they were at not having been "consulted" before the strikes on Libya. (Even though their leaders were.) The White House and Pentagon were so eager to sell the story that NATO had taken over operations that reporters and bloggers apparently were baffled that American warplanes continued operating against Libya. (That was always part of the plan.)
So whether it's "immoral" or not for the U.S. to try to slip into the background and fight as an equal partner, the White House is definitely discovering that when you try to fight a half-war with half-measures and compromise, Americans will only half rally 'round the flag -- if at all.