Libya bomb - Reuters - 26.3.11
Western coalition forces bombarding Libya. Photo by Reuters
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One of the directors of the CIA used to have a a sign hanging on his office wall that said that the greatest strategic surprise is when an adversary does something that is totally contrary to his own self-interest." Had there been room for a footnote he surely would have added that the same applies when his own boss, the president, surprises everyone - and perhaps even himself - with such an act.

That former CIA chief is Robert Gates, now the U.S. Secretary of Defense (whose doctoral dissertation was on Sino-Soviet relations ). He arrived here on Thursday for a short visit centered on one more in an endless series of meeting with Defense Minister Ehud Barak. Gates flew here from Russia; in a few months he will retire after four and a half years in the position, under presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama.

A civil war is taking place in Libya - the regime of Muammar Gadhafi against rebels. The Obama administration prefers to call it "Gadhafi's war against his own people." There have certainly have been many civilian casualties, mainly in army attacks but also in rebel actions. That is deplorable but not unusual. The Turkish army has killed many more civilians in operations against Kurdish separatists (who have also not quailed at killing noncombatants ). Turkey, of course, is an important member of NATO, and no levelheaded U.S. statesman would dare propose extending air cover to the Kurds in Diyarbakir.

Democratic presidents conducted the U.S. military campaigns in Korea (Harry Truman ) and Vietnam (Lyndon Johnson ). Consequently their successors have sought to avoid similar entanglements and to condemn Republican presidents such as the Bushes, who dived headfirst into the empty swimming pools that are Iraq and Afghanistan. Bill Clinton, and now Obama, resorted to verbal gymnastics in their efforts to explain why Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, Kosovo and now Libya were different.

The difference is purportedly twofold, in being both limited and primarily multinational rather than American. Limited in terms of aims, targets, duration and the means employed; multinational in terms of both the participating forces and the way decisions are made.

Gates, who has served all U.S. presidents (except Clinton ) since joining the CIA in the mid-1960s, has no such illusions. He hopes that by the end of his watch the U.S. army will have handed over responsibility to the Iraqi government - that is set to happen this summer - and the situation in Afghanistan will have improved.

While the defense secretary is only an advisor to the president and commander in chief, Obama cannot fire Gates, who has already announced his imminent departure, and must consult him. Gates did not walk out, but he did serve as a counterweight to those aides who urged Obama to take action in Libya.

If it is true that most of this pressure was from civilians - Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, UN Ambassador Susan Rice and National Security Council member Samantha Power - this follows tradition in Washington, where soldiers tend to caution against military leaps into the unknown while civilians are itching for battle. In his memoir of the 1991 Gulf War, when he was deputy national security advisor, Gates wrote that in Washington the doves are in uniform. In the run-up to the decision on Libya it was the civilians who pushed for action and the Pentagon - led by Gates and Michael Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who were the brakes.

The compromise solution gave Clinton and Co. the operation while specifying limitations, for Gates and the top brass.

The officers' biggest fear is of an overly loose, open-ended definition of the mission. For that reason it was decided at the outset that the command, and the headaches, would be handed off to someone else - presumably NATO, though that wasn't clear - within "days, not weeks."

NATO has no armed forces of its own. It has command headquarters that control the forces of member states. The commander of Joint Task Force Odyssey Dawn, U.S. Navy Adm. Sam Locklear, is hosting on the command ship, the USS Mount Whitney, senior naval officers from participating countries.

Locklear is commander of U.S. Naval Forces Europe-Africa and Allied Joint Force Command, Naples. He is subordinate to Adm. James Stavridis, who is both Supreme Allied Commander Europe and commander of the U.S. European Command, and Gen. Carter Ham, the commander of the U.S. African Command.

Africom is a bluff. There is no command. It is a military-diplomatic organization, with an emphasis on development, consulting and economic cooperation, created at the end of the Bush era to signal an interest in Africa. Missions from other regional commands were expropriated to it and it was given the entire continent with the exception of Egypt, which remained in the Central Command. Israel, which from the U.S. perspective is in the European Command, participates in NATO's Mediterranean Dialogue, together with Central Command members Egypt and Jordan and Africom members Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria and Mauritania. Planning and operations cross three separate commands.

Africom has no forces, with the exception of the Horn of Africa. Its headquarters are in Stuttgart because no African capital was willing to host a U.S. military command - a synonym for occupation, aggression and foreign rule. by powers.

From the start, the U.S. army has treated the Libyan mission like a kind of hit-and-run accident: missile strikes against stationary ground-to-air and ground-to-ground missile batteries; an aerial strike on an armored vehicle; a gradual westward crawl along the coast, but not yet to Tripoli; limited air support for the rebels.

The weakness of the operational plan is completely the result of allowing Gadhafi to maintain the initiative. If he is crazy enough to take a pilot prisoner, to use chemical weapons or to dispatch terrorists to carry out attacks overseas, the mission will be expanded to include the targeted assassination of him and his family. But if he scales back his defense, that would take the wind out of the politicians' sails. Last week NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said that Stavridis was deploying NATO ships and aircraft in the central Mediterranean, "to monitor, report and, if needed, interdict vessels suspected of carrying illegal arms or mercenaries" for Gadhafi's forces.

Half of Stavridis' authority comes from NATO, but the greater half is from Obama and from Gates, who before his retirement will advise Obama on his choice for the next chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Stavridis is a leading candidate. Like Gates, he has a university doctorate, as well as a Ph.D. in life sciences in political Washington. Gadhafi, if he acts in accordance with his own logic, not the logic attributed to him at the White House, will outlast them.