One thing I learned as a reporter was that effective defense officials chose their words extremely carefully, especially when they emerged from meetings with allies over the use of force. So take a moment to read this comment, made by Defense Secretary Gates after a NATO meeting in Brussels today: "NATO will only act if there is demonstrable need, a sound legal basis, and strong regional support."
In case anyone missed the point, old Gates underscored it a couple of minutes later. "We are very mindful of opinion in the region, and that's one of the reasons that one of the three central criteria with respect to any action requires strong regional support. I think that a number of ministers made clear that we were -- we wanted to put ourselves in a position to assist the Arab League, the African Union or the U.N. in this endeavor, and very sensitive to NATO being responsive to those organizations rather than taking an initiative on its own."
I would say the American position is that it will support NATO action if one of those three entities agrees to take the lead. I suspect that the American position may "stiffen," as Churchill would say, if Qaddafi's forces start slaughtering people. That would be a change in the "demonsrable need" meter. Sound legal basis is easy to handle. So that leaves the regional support for action as the major variable.
This does remind me a lot of Bosnia '94. Makes me miss Holbrooke.
For those who want to do their own parsing of the SecDef, here's the whole transcript.
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Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military for the Washington Post from 2000 through 2008.