Hey, remember that Libyan war? Third simultaneous conflict? I know, spending on wars has nothing to do with the budget, so it’s been removed from the discussion lately. Anyway, NATO’s in charge now, and the US bugged out. They’re not even running bombing missions anymore! Except, as friend to FDL Spencer Ackerman points out, they are:

Pentagon officials confirm to NBC News that U.S. pilots have attacked Libyan air defenses three times in the past week. They’ve not hit Moammar Gadhafi’s ground forces, the ones that continue to attack rebel positions and Libyan civilians. And the Pentagon swears it’s kept its pledge to remain in a “supporting” role for NATO by pointing to that distinction.

We do not characterize those as ’strikes,’ because [air defense suppression] is considered a defensive, vice offensive, mission,” said Col. David Lapan, a Defense Department spokesman.

You decide if that’s a distinction without a difference. The mantra from the Obama administration was that the U.S. contribution to the hot end of the war in Libya would last for “days, not weeks.” According to Lapan, six F-16s, supported by five of the Navy’s EA-18 Growler jamming jets, have flown 97 sorties to suppress Gadhafi’s air defenses since NATO fully took charge of the war without U.S. gunships on April 4.

And this is all before NATO meets to decide on stepping up the mission. They’ve already begun to attack Gadhafi’s forces around the orphaned city of Misurata, which is in a humanitarian crisis. And while NATO members pledged all means of support for the Libyan rebels, including cash and “means of defense” (that’s arms shipments), the rebels have begun to clamor for ground troops.

Libyan war cheerleader Juan Cole forwards talk of an uprising in Tripoli. But I don’t think anyone is convinced of a quick end to the Gadhafi regime anymore. And the humanitarian crises that the military operation was designed to avert are already coming to pass – the World Food Program estimates that half of the country’s 6.5 million residents will have trouble finding food if the fighting continues much longer. Here’s Andrew Sullivan:

My concern is that this war was begun without any serious, far-ranging discussion of what should happen after the massacre was prevented. White House sources tell me there will never be boots on the ground, and that the no-fly zone will be NATO’s responsibility, not just America’s. They also tell me there will be no arms funneled to the rebels. The next phase will, apparently, be like Iraq between the first and second wars against Saddam: a no-fly zone, and an economic, diplomatic squeeze until Qaddafi pops out of Libya like the pus in a ripe zit.

But the Iraq experience surely shows the severe limits to this pop-the-zit strategy.

The sanctions and a decade-long no-fly zone were, after all, not sufficient to force Saddam from power. Dictators have learned the art of hanging on the hard way, and Qaddafi is not the type to give up. We’ve already seen the massive superiority of Qaddafi’s armed forces, despite the successful targeting of munition sites and tanks. We are also now witnessing the classic asymmetrical response to a super-power. Qaddafi’s forces are now in the white pick-up trucks used by the rebels, making it harder and harder to target them from the skies. He is arming those civilians loyal to him with rifles. If the struggle for power ends up within major cities, like Tripoli and Benghazi, the allies will be toothless. Bombing densely populated areas would inevitably lead to large civilian casualties, and the US is not Israel in this regard. It is not acting in self-defense; it is acting in an attempt at long-range social and political engineering. And, of course, the last thing the US wants is to kill Libyan civilians in order to save them.

He concludes that escalation would be the natural consequence of Gadhafi remaining in power, which incidentally is what we’re seeing. And the US is involved.

As Spencer stresses, the President just called for $400 billion in deficit reduction from the defense budget by 2023. The Pentagon was none too happy with that, by the way. But it stretches credulity that you’ll get any deficit benefit from war operations when you keep larding on more wars. Nobody’s talking about how much these Libya sorties are costing Americans. And you can bet that won’t come up in any “grand bargain” negotiations, either.