I just got off a call with Ben Rhodes, the deputy national security advisor for strategic communications, about the Libyan operation. Rhodes really tried to make the distinction between the allegedly limited military mission of the coalition and an operation with the clear objective of regime change. Rhodes said that the mission is “restricted to civilian protection,” and added that if you allow the military policy to creep into regime change, there is no UN authority for it.

And yet, any reasonable reading of the situation in Libya would admit that we’re not merely protecting civilians, unless by civilians you mean “rebels with guns moving to take over pro-Gadhafi cities by force.” In fact, coalition airstrikes have taken out not just tanks and armor and air defenses, but has directly targeted Gadhafi’s troops in areas far afield of Benghazi, which was emphasized as the scene of a humanitarian diaster averted. So I asked Rhodes how he could square this with his claim about the mission.

Rhodes said that the United Nations determined that a no-fly zone, on its own, would not protect the Libyan people, a comment with which I agree. He said that the clause allowing for “all necessary measures” to stop Gadhafi’s forces from entering cities authorizes the kind of missions we’ve seen. “Benghazi was the principal focus at the time… but other cities were under duress,” said Rhodes, including the cutting off of key supplies like water and fuel. Finally, the coalition is not operating as the air force for the rebels because they are not coordinating air missions.

OK, but the last major air attack fell on Sirte, a city held by pro-Gadhafi forces throughout this civil war, not one where civilians are threatened unless you mean civilians with guns. The night that the rebels approached Sirte was the same night that explosions came from the air over Sirte. Unless that’s an amazing coincidence, or that there’s some rebel stronghold within a few miles of Sirte that nobody knows about, that’s not a mission protecting civilians.

We can keep playing these games, but I don’t think it’s particularly helpful. In addition, neither do observers: Russia has said that the coalition’s actions violate the UN mandate. They aren’t part of the coalition, of course, and they abstained on the UN resolution. But they are a member of the Security Council with veto power, and I doubt they’re the only ones with this perspective. Rhodes talked about not moving to mission creep, but I think we’re already there.

More on the call later.