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On Monday, the Obama administration achieved one of the president’s principal goals in Libya: withdrawing U.S. warplanes from the fight against Moammar Gadhafi. In his speech last week explaining his decision to support an air campaign, President Obama said that after leading initial strikes, U.S. forces would transition to “a supporting role”; in practice, that has meant the grounding of AC-130 and A-10 Warthog planes that had been pounding the tanks, trucks and artillery of the Gadhafi forces. 

The unusual ceding of U.S. military leadership has served to reinforce Obama’s strategy of lowering America’s profile in the Middle East and sharing the burden of operations such as Libya. The question is whether it is advancing more tangible U.S. aims in Libya - which according to Obama are protecting civilians. 

Obama has said that the aim of the air campaign is not regime change, which he said can be accomplished by other means. 

Still, the dangers of the military stalemate for the United States increase with each day it lasts. The greater the disorder in Libya, the greater the chance that extremist forces, including al-Qaida, will push aside the pro-Western figures who now lead the opposition.  And the longer the fighting continues, the more harm will come to civilians.

Obama said last week that because of his grounding of U.S. planes, “the risk and the cost of the operation . . . will be reduced significantly.” That may be the result in the short term. But if the withholding of U.S. resources enables Gadhafi’s survival in power, the long-term consequences will be the reverse of the president’s promise.