So what happens to a no-fly zone when the opposition has no ability to fly?

Col Muammar Gaddafi’s air force “no longer exists as a fighting force”, the commander of British aircraft operating over Libya has said.

Air Vice Marshal Greg Bagwell said the allies could now operate “with near impunity” over the skies of Libya.

The mission, then, has already changed. It’s gone from preventing Libyan aircraft from flying operations to applying pressure through airstrikes to pro-Gadhafi forces on the ground. There is no operation of a no-fly zone, it’s an operation to establish air supremacy and air support to repel attacks.

Now this fits with the “all necessary means” to protect civilians clause of the UN resolution. But it goes beyond the limited operation that sold the mission just last week. The coalition is providing the air support for a military operation carried out by rebels on the ground. There’s also an ongoing naval blockade, enforcing a UN embargo of Libya. The goal is to inspect ships for arms shipments to the government.

This appears to be working somewhat; Gadhafi’s tanks have pulled back somewhat in Misurata, Sen. Carl Levin announced on a conference call. But what if it fails to achieve the goal of removing Gadhafi from power. Well, guess what. The same people who tried to talk the country into war in about a thousand other parts of the world over the past decade want a ground commitment.

Conservative advocates for greater U.S. intervention in Libya are beginning to call for a limited number of boots on the ground to help rebel forces coordinate and target their attacks against Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi.

Max Boot, a longtime proponent of the use of military force to promote U.S. ideals around the world, is calling on President Obama to send special forces teams into Libya to work with the opposition leaders to coordinate their attacks on the ground with NATO airstrikes [...]

“This is by no means at odds with the [U.N.] Security Council,” Boot told reporters on a conference call Wednesday morning. “All I’m suggesting is there be some special forces troops to work with the rebels. I don’t think we’re going to have that peaceful and sustainable solution we’re looking for if Qaddafi remains in power.”

“We need to step up and do a little bit more to get rid of him…,” Boot said.

You could see this two-step coming a mile away. First, all they wanted was support for the rebels with a no-fly zone. Now, with that proving unable to push Gadhafi out, they want a “limited” ground presence. And before long, the word “limited” will be taken away.

And I don’t know how the coalition, having already stuck their neck out with a responsibility to protect doctrine, committed to defending Libyan “civilians” (is a rebel holding an AK-47 a civilian?), says no to this request. The point is that the entire operation was a slippery slope from the start. Even if the military goal doesn’t start with regime change, without a strategy for what happens next it could easily move to that. Gadhafi will not leave willingly. Without air support, he and the rebels can just play out a long-term civil war. So to protect the population and achieve the long-term goal of regime change, the coalition will have to end up doing more. Which implicates them deeper.

Conservatives, faced with a President who basically acted on their initial request, have just moved the goalposts again without a hint of irony. There is a muddled response from Republicans in total: some are simply bound by hatred of Obama and will just prescribe the opposite of whatever he does, some in the Tea Party are genuinely conflicted about military action abroad, and some, like neocon Max Boot and his allies, will just pursue a maximalist strategy. And the neocons still have the main hold over Republican foreign policy. So Obama will have to respond to this. And I’m not sanguine about the outcome.

…Meanwhile, though the Guardian made it sound this morning like NATO would take over command of the mission, that has not yet happened, as some NATO members balk at the idea.