So Gates disclosed that “we have made provisions to have our strike aircraft available on a short period of time,” should NATO be unable to stop an unfolding humanitarian disaster. The AC-130s and A-10s — and, possibly, U.S. warplanes — will be “sort of on a standby.” McCain still characterized that as the U.S. “abdicating its leadership role.”

Gates pushed back. Within NATO, he said “everyone understood the United States would come in heavy and hard in the beginning,” and then pull back to a supporting role.

But Sen. Roger Wicker of Mississippi said the U.S. should stay in “heavy and hard until we have won this thing.” His GOP colleague, Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire, said she couldn’t understand how to get rid of Gadhafi without “putting our full might in.”

That set Gates off. “When you say putting the full might of U.S. involved, that’s another full scale war in the Middle East,” he said. Gates moved to shut the rhetorical door Adm. James Stavridis opened to a post-Gadhafi NATO peacekeeping mission, noting that the United Nations resolution authorizing the war might consider it an illegal occupation — and besides which, it would be “nearly impossible” for NATO to agree on that mission.

“The last thing this country needs is another exercise in nationbuilding,” Gates warned. “The future of Libya, the U.S. ought not take responsibility for that.” Gates essentially pleaded for patience from the Senate, for NATO warplanes to pound loyalist forces until the military turns on Gadhafi. ~Spencer Ackerman

It’s tempting to feel sorry for Gates in all of this. After all, he did his best in public to make the idea of intervening in Libya seem as unnecessary and foolish as possible, he has made a point of correctly telling people that Libya is unimportant to the U.S., and he seems intent on making sure that the U.S. isn’t dragged into a commitment beyond what Gates initially believed would be happening. Regardless, this is partly Gates’ responsibility and partly his fault. He must know as well as anyone that once the U.S. was involved, it wasn’t going to matter whether it formally became a NATO operation or not, and he had to know that the expectation would be that U.S. forces would be expected to do most of the work for as long as the war lasted. After years of trying to get European governments to do more in Afghanistan, Gates should have known better than anyone that there was no political will and not many military resources for European allies to rely on in a Libyan campaign.

Adam Garfinkle referred to intervening in Libya as going down the rabbit hole, and it certainly has the feeling of going through the looking-glass. Garfinkle also wondered how Gates could do anything but resign now that the war had started. 12 days in, we’re still wondering.

There are weird, inverted resemblances to Iraq that most Libyan war supporters want to pretend aren’t there. Instead of the reckless, unprepared Pentagon pushing for an invasion over the objections of more cautious State Department officials, we have the reckless, unprepared State Department officials insisting on a war the Pentagon sees as pointless. In other words, the people whose expertise was most relevant and should have been heeded were deliberately sidelined, and the people who had no idea what they were getting into prevailed.

The roles and political positions of the American and British governments are reversed. Where Britain was dragged along behind Bush into Iraq by Blair supposedly to keep the “special relationship” intact, Obama has given the impression that he and his administration have been dragged along behind Britain (and France) by Cameron for the sake of allied solidarity. Cameron’s Cabinet is the one staffed with rather neoconservative ideologues (e.g., Fox, Gove, etc.), and Obama has become the trendy center-left political leader who tries to reassure a skeptical world that the latest stupid war is actually necessary and good.

We also have in Gates a skeptical member of Obama’s Cabinet who enjoys a good reputation for competence, but someone who is nonetheless forced to go out and defend a policy that he has to know is profoundly ill-advised. Like Powell, Gates has remained in place despite the fact that he obviously wanted no part of this Libya business. What makes Gates’ failure to resign over this so puzzling is that he is already on his way out the door. The attack on Libya would have given him an easy way to leave now, and he could have washed his hands of the policy decision he had tried to get Obama not to make. Perhaps if Obama had seriously thought he might lose Gates with all the bad publicity and controversy that would entail, he might have given the matter much more thought before he plunged into the middle of this.