With President Obama making only brief remarks during his trip to Latin America, most of what we know about the beginning of the war in Libya comes from two briefings Saturday, from Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton in France and from Vice Admiral Bill Gortney at the Pentagon. And those two high-ranking officials delivered strikingly different messages about the extent of United States involvement in the war.
Clinton played down the U.S. role. "We did not lead this," she said flatly of the coalition currently attacking Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi. "We did not engage in unilateral actions in any way, but we strongly support the international community taking action against governments and leaders who behave as Gaddafi is unfortunately doing so now."
But Clinton said something else that was more revealing of the true U.S. role. "America has unique capabilities and we will bring them to bear," she said at one point. "We have unique capabilities to bring to the international efforts," she said at another point. And at still another moment, she said, "We think that the most important step for us to take now is to assist in every way that is unique to American capabilities with the enforcement of [UN Security Council Resolution] 1973…"
What Clinton meant by "unique capabilities" is that the United States has military power that other participating nations don't have, and it is that power, and virtually that power alone, that makes the Libyan war possible. Clinton's two key statements: 'We did not lead this" and "America has unique capabilities" are not consistent with each other. Because of America's unique capabilities, it is in fact leading the Libyan effort.
That became entirely clear in Gortney's briefing. "In these early days, the operation will be under the operational command of General Carter Ham, commander of U.S. Africa Command," Gortney told reporters at the Pentagon. "And the commander of Joint Task Force Odyssey Dawn, which is the name of this operation, is Admiral Sam Locklear, who is embarked on board USS Mount Whitney in the Mediterranean."
The United States, Gortney stressed, is in full charge of the Libya operation. Although Gortney said there would be an "eventual transition of leadership to a coalition commander in the coming days," he also added: "That said, the U.S. military has and will continue to use our unique capabilities to create the conditions from which we and our partners can best enforce the full measure of the U.N. mandate."
"Unique capabilities" again.
Later, a reporter asked Gortney, "To be clear, this is a U.S.-led operation, but in the hours leading up today there’s communications or talk to try to talk that down?"
"We are on the leading edge of coalition operations where the United States under General Ham in Africa Command is in charge," Gortney responded. "He’s in command of this at this point. And in the coming days we intend to transition it to a coalition command."
Gortney offered no details on how long the period of "coming days" might be. But he did offer details on just how much of the Libya operation is being borne by U.S. forces. Early in the briefing, Gortney said the attack involved "110 Tomahawk cruise missiles fired from both U.S. and British ships and submarines." Later, a reporter asked: "Can you specify how many British ships were involved compared to the U.S. ships?"
"We had one British submarine," Gortney said.
"And the rest were all U.S.?"
Gortney's briefing made clear that the United States is not only leading the Libya operation but is virtually the only force involved in the operation. With America's "unique capabilities," it could hardly be any other way. And few Americans would want U.S. forces to go into combat under anything other than U.S. command. But why would the Secretary of State step onto the world stage and announce, "We did not lead this"?
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