Swapping One War for Another

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GOODBYE: Afghan leader Hamid Karzai

HELLO: Libyan leader Muammar Ghaddafi

HELLO: Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi

Did you catch that sleight-of-command over the weekend? The U.S. recognized the rebels in Libya even as the NATO-led coalition announced the first 650 troops – of President Obama’s planned pullout of 33,000 by the end of next summer – started coming home from Afghanistan with no one slated to replace them.

Tuesday marks the beginning of the fifth month of war against the Libyan government of Muammar Gaddafi. The U.S. has acted alternately befuddled and becalmed in this third contemporaneous military action.

(PHOTOS: Scenes from the Battle for Libya)

After an impressive start – commanded by Margaret Woodward – Washington knew it didn’t want to be at the helm of a third war. So, as planned all along, it quickly handed off the operation to NATO, whose leaders have been saying for months that Gaddafi is on the verge of capitulating. Yet the war persists, highlighting the impotence of world history’s greatest military alliance against a third-rate despot and his mercenary army. Gadaffi shows no signs of backing down. “After we gave our children as martyrs, we can’t backtrack or surrender or give up or move an inch,” he said in a Saturday broadcast. “Rest assured in your tombs, our martyrs, we will not betray you ever.”

So there really are only two questions about Hillary Clinton tossing the full faith and credit – oops, wrong story – make that the backing of the U.S. government to Libya’s so-called Transitional National Council: what was the logic of waiting so long (“We acted in warp time in diplomatic terms,” Clinton said), and who the heck are these guys? Clinton said she got “important assurances” from the TNC that its various factions will play nice together and make Libya safe for democracy. This after months of dithering about the rebels’ democratic bona fides. (Josh Rogin does a good job tracing the indecision on The Cable blog.)

The rebels also pledged “to disburse funds in a transparent manner.” That’s right – the recognition lets the anti-Gaddafi forces tap into the $30 billion in Libyan government funds held in U.S. banks. So it makes for a perfect war, as far as the Obama Administration is concerned: we’re neither leading it nor paying for it.

PHOTOS: A Blackhawk’s View of Afghanistan