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An F-16 at Aviano, Italy, after flying a mission over Libya / DoD photo

This is a word that crops up whenever a military coalition gets underway. It’s like making laws, sausage or journalism — messy up close. Generally, there’s a week or two of bumps, and then smooth sailing. Sometimes — like in Iraq, for example — it can take years, but that’s due more to inept U.S. planning and resourcing than any alliance issues.

The challenge for the Obama Administration is that it went from downplaying the notion of a no-fly zone to flying one almost overnight. Congress felt — heck, it was — caught unawares. The White House consulted the UN more than the U.S. legislative bodies, turning lawmakers into dry kindling ready to erupt in flames at the slightest spark. That’s why there’s a conflagration going on right now on Capitol Hill.

The Libyan campaign, as envisioned by President Obama, tosses the so-called Powell doctrine — overwhelming force to achieve a clear goal — on its ear. He’s deploying nuance, which doesn’t mesh well with Tomahawk cruise missiles and globe-circling B-2 bomber attacks. It’s a worthy endeavor, but the question remains: can an international coalition violently succeed without the U.S. playing the key role?

The commitment is open-ended. Listen to Adm. Gary Roughead, who as chief of naval operations is a member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He was asked Wednesday morning about the “exit strategy” the U.S. military’s high command envisioned when it approved launching Operation Odyssey Dawn:

We knew who is going to be conducting the operation, but we’re also very mindful of the transition to another potential command and control lead or structure, and so we talked about that — clearly we’re in the process of working through it, there are a lot of political aspects to it, but from my perspective, looking at it from the military standpoint of conducting these types of operations, I was very comfortable with where we were. Obviously, I’m very interested in the transition to a different command and control structure, perhaps, but my focus is on really being able to make sure that we execute the operations effectively and safely.

OK, fine. But what about the endgame, Roughead was asked again over breakfast:

As we’re flying the no-fly zone and facilitating that being able to happen by suppressing air defenses and things like that, by taking action to protect the civilians, those are things that are being driven by a Security Council resolution that are agreed to by those who are participating in this coalition, and so those types of things are well within our capability to do, and we’ll continue to do them.

Two strikes and you’re out. Based on the admiral’s two non-answers to a pretty simple question, there is no clear endgame to the Libyan operation. And military experts are getting nervous.

The no-fly zone “is the damndest piece of political subterfuge I’ve ever heard of,” says retired Army general Barry McCaffrey. “The air cap in no way affected anything to do with Gaddafi’s center of gravity to dominate the country — his tanks, armor and artillery.” Gaddafi, he says, is continuing to terrorize his citizens with ground forces.

“I could support protecting civilians in Libya,” the former four-star says. “But what I can’t support is ineffectual use of the U.S. armed forces with fuzzy political rhetoric, which is likely to run us into the reef.” McCaffrey says a stepped-up bombing campaign — which the coalition seems to be leaning toward — could tilt the scales the rebels’ way. “We need to turn loose the full power of the U.S. Air Force to kill his tanks,” McCaffrey says. “They should aggressively start tank plinking. They could drop leaflets telling people to `stay away from Gaddafi’s armor because we’re going after them tonight,’ and we’d find that not only would the Libyan civilians stay away from them, but so would the tank crews.”

Anthony Cordesman, a military analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank in Washington, said Wednesday that “essentially, the no-fly zone is not going to succeed.”

The rebels are too under-equipped and under-trained to prevail over Gaddafi’s mediocre, but more powerful, forces, he says. “So what we have, basically, are rebels that have a great deal of enthusiasm and who are willing to risk their lives, but don’t have discipline or structure,” Cordesman says. “In case after case, it’s clear that when they do have officers present, they won’t pay proper attention, they won’t show sufficient discipline to carry out maneuvers that are even very simple — either in advancing or retreating.”

The no-fly zone imposed by the coalition doesn’t solve the rebels’ challenges on the ground. “The problem the rebels have is that simply stopping Gaddafi from flying a limited number of helicopter and fighter sorties a day, didn’t give the rebels tanks, artillery, discipline or the ability to plan and execute operations, as distinguished from essentially swarming an area and causing a popular uprising,” he says. “They remain very vulnerable to ground action.”

So there is a big decision looming, which has consequences for Gaddafi, the Libyan rebels, as well as Obama. “The question really is — in all the confusion over what the mission is — is it going to become a no-move zone for the Gaddafi forces, is it going to become a population-protection zone for the areas that have been under rebel control, is it going to target Gaddafi’s power structure at all, or challenge the loyalty of the forces that are fighting for him?” he asks. “Gaddafi’s ground forces are very small, and if you did enforce a no-move zone, or you did attack any forces which attack a population center that the rebels have held, it’s not clear they would hold together — but it’s not clear they would instantly collapse. War is often a matter of taking risks without being able to predict the outcome.”

So that’s the gamble. “Since we’re really talking about political cohesion — much more than classic measures of military strength — knowing whether the rebels can hold together, knowing what would trigger disloyalty or the collapse of the Gaddafi force, knowing whether we are really seeking to create rebel-held zones in a divided country — these are issues to which we really don’t have any answers, and it’s obvious to the extent there is a coalition, there’s no unity in the coalition that is enforcing the no-fly zone,” Cordesman says. “In the case of Libya, `no-fly’ is an awkward synonym for half-pregnant.”

Cordesman says the infamous fog of war has drifted far beyond the battlefield. “The problem is not so much mission creep,” he says, “but mission confusion.”

McCaffrey agrees, and sees evidence of that murkiness in the men in uniform the Administration has been rolling out to detail the war plan. “The Administration put (Adm. Mike) Mullen and (Army Gen.) Carter Ham, with a bad haircut, on TV, while Gates, Biden, Hillary Clinton and the President of the United States stayed out of sight,” fumes McCaffrey. “How dare they go off, all of them, and disappear, and leave two hapless four-stars to explain what’s going on in Libya.”

Hapless four stars? That’s a first.