Read more of Slate's coverage of the Libya conflict.
But sometimes public statements should be taken at face value. When a no-fly zone was first proposed, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates warned that it would have to be preceded by an attack on Libya's air-defense systems so that coalition pilots could then patrol the skies with minimal fear of getting shot down. At the start of the campaign, President Obama said that U.S. forces had "unique capabilities" that can clear the way for allied aircraft to enforce the U.N. resolution.
That is what the first day's barrage was all about. Those "unique capabilities" consisted of long-range weapons that can hit targets, such as air-defense batteries, with precision—namely, the Tomahawk cruise missiles, launched from four ships off Libya's coast, and a number of Joint Direct Attack Munitions fired from three B-2 bombers. * No other country could have amassed that much accurate firepower in such concentrated salvos.
Now, as a result, Libya's air defenses are pretty much obliterated, and the other countries' air forces can patrol the area—and, in some cases, bomb and strafe Qaddafi's ground forces, as some already have—with relative impunity.
Whose air forces do what, under what auspices, and for how long, are questions that the countries of NATO and the Arab League are meeting now to decide. Obama has said they'll resolve their differences fairly quickly. Others predict privately that the mission's military objectives will be accomplished fairly soon as well—that Qaddafi's troops will retreat or be damaged to such a degree that the Libyan rebels can mount a counteroffensive on the ground.
But, again, the big question is: What then?
Will Qaddafi have to go? The mixed signals over this are not as contradictory as they may seem. U.S. policy is that, yes, he must give up power. However, the U.N. resolution, which authorized military action to protect Libyan civilians (and "civilian-populated areas"), does not call for regime change; nor, if it had, would the security council have passed it.
What this means is that U.S. military forces will do nothing in this operation to go after Qaddafi directly. However, in listing the kinds of targets that we can attack under the resolution, U.S. officials have mentioned "command and control facilities." This is a broad term of art that can include everything from blast-hardened launch-control bunkers to a telephone on a commander's desk—including (presumably) Qaddafi's desk.
In fact, the missile that hit Qaddafi's compound the first night was aimed explicitly at the section of the compound thought to include his headquarters. Under the U.N. resolution, this was a legitimate attack, whereas, say, dropping a bomb on his bedroom would not have been. If Qaddafi had been in the headquarters at the time … well, so it goes. (Such is, let us say, the flexibility of "command and control" as a target category; it is to war planners what "overhead" is to corporate accountants.)
But let's say Qaddafi is out of the scene. What then?
It's a fallacy—and should be a well-known one by now—that blowing off a tyrant's lid will unleash some geyser of liberty. Many commentators have been wondering of late just who these Libyan rebels are, what they stand for, and what they'd do if they rose to power.