Pressure building on Obama to specify scope, goals of U.S. action in Libya


Benghazi protesters shout slogans during a demonstration in support of coalition airstrikes in Libya. (SUHAIB SALEM/REUTERS)
March 24, 2011

Of all the decisions that a president must make, none calls for more clarity than the one to go to war. Thus far, President Obama’s move to join other nations in intervening militarily in Libya appears to have generated confusion instead — both as to the scope of the mission and to its ultimate end.

Though NATO announced Thursday it would take control of enforcing a no-fly zone, the United States and its coalition partners will continue for now to command strikes against Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi’s ground forces in an effort to protect Libyan civilians.

With the potential for prolonged conflict, calls are growing louder on Capitol Hill and elsewhere for a fuller explanation of precisely what the United States hopes to achieve and how it intends to achieve it.

Administration officials say they have done that — through the president’s public remarks made during his trip to Latin America, including in an interview with Univision television; in briefings by top aides with reporters; and in meetings with congressional leaders.

But part of the confusion comes from the fact that the administration has shifted over the past weeks — from resisting military action, to leading the first assault, to positioning itself to hand over control to its partners. That seems to have left almost no one satisfied.

Those who were urging Obama from the start to charge in — neoconservatives on the right; humanitarian interventionists on the left — say he dithered too long. Those who warned against yet another incursion into the Muslim world, particularly in a country where U.S. interests are limited, say he has been reckless. He has been accused of being too deferential to other governments, and not enough so to Congress.

The White House has replied by asking, what were the president’s choices? To go in early, they say, would have meant to do it unilaterally. To refuse to act when Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi was declaring war on his own people would have meant the possibilty of standing by as thousands were slaughtered.

While partisans in Washington argue over the process that brought the United States to this point, the public’s concern is different, said Andrew Kohut, president of the Pew Research Center. “What they care about is understanding what the terms and conditions of the engagement are.”

But on even the most basic question — is this war? — the White House has strained for an answer.

“It is a time-limited, scope-limited military action, in concert with our international partners,” White House press secretary Jay Carney said when he was asked that on Thursday, “with the objective of protecting civilian life in Libya from Moammar Gaddafi and his forces.”

Though he has answered questions about Libya in a number of settings in recent days, Obama’s own voice in all of this has not been as loud as it might have been.

Presidents generally set the stage for military action with a formal pronouncement, such as an address from the Oval Office. Obama has yet to speak to the nation directly, except in an audio message issued shortly after the first missiles were fired and while he was traveling in South America. On Thursday, the first day after his return from that trip, he made no public appearances.

Carney said the president will have more to say in the future, but he did not specify when.

Congress, meanwhile, is growing more impatient. “The limited, sometimes contradictory, case made to the American people by members of your Administration has left some fundamental questions about our engagement unanswered,” House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) wrote in a letter to Obama on Wednesday.

Among the issues raised by the speaker and by others is the fact that while the president has stated a goal of removing Gaddafi from power, the United Nations Security Council resolution that authorizes the current airstrikes embraces a different one — protecting civilians.

Given that contradiction, Boehner wrote, is it an acceptable outcome for Gaddafi “to remain in power after the military effort concludes in Libya? If not, how will he be removed from power?”

In an interview on CNN, deputy national security adviser Denis McDonough said that Boehner had raised “a very legitimate set of questions.” He also acknowledged that “it’s important to bring the country along.”

The questions will not necessarily be resolved if the promised handoff of the mission to a NATO-led force takes place.

It would be the most ambitious exercise yet of the kind of multilateralism that Obama promised would be the hallmark of his approach to foreign policy. But the messy process of assembling that coalition, and ensuring that it includes some participation by Muslim countries, has raised doubts about how well it will hold together and how effective it will be. If it fails, the United States might find itself right back where it started, facing calls that its military take charge.

“In some sense, the president right now has put himself in the position where he is a hostage to the actions of others,” said James Lindsay, a former official in the Clinton White House who is now director of studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. “They are walking right now on a much more rickety bridge than other presidents did in other military operations.”

Most polls show Americans support the operation, but they usually do in the initial phase after U.S. forces are put in harm’s way. Pollsters and political scientists have a name for it: the “rally round the flag” effect.

In this instance, that sentiment could be fragile. A Gallup poll conducted shortly after the airstrikes began found that support exceeded disapproval by 47 percent to 37 percent. But that was the lowest level of initial approval Gallup found for any other U.S. military campaign going at least as far back as the early 1980s.

Another potentially telling indicator in the Gallup poll: Republicans (who are generally more supportive of military action) approved of this one by 57 percent to 31 percent and Democrats (who are generally more supportive of Obama) supported it by 51 percent to 34 percent. But among independents, whose assessments presumably are less affected by partisan identification, support for the military action in Libya was significantly lower — 38 percent.

The polls also suggest that support could grow with a fuller explanation of the goals of the mission and its limits. Different surveys use different questions, and approval rises as respondents are told that the point of the action is to protect civilians and that no U.S. ground troops would be involved.

While the American public’s ultimate verdict on the mission will hinge on whether it succeeds, the argument in Washington continues to center on process and decisionmaking.

Some of the political controversy surrounding the mission might have been avoided if lawmakers hadn’t been on recess when it happened. Obama informed congressional leaders of his plans for military action on a conference call last Friday — in which Boehner, for one, did not raise any questions. His spokesman Michael Steel said he saw no real opportunity for consultation, as the call was a “recitation of what they were doing, not a conversation of what they should do. . . .It barely qualified as a heads-up.”

The administration is moving to smooth over ill feelings. On Wednesday, after House members get back to town, they will have an opportunity to grill Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, Defense Secretary Robert Gates, national intelligence director James Clapper and Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman Mike Mullen in a classified briefing.

Staff writer Anne E. Kornblut and polling manager Peyton Craighill contributed to this report.

Karen Tumulty is a national political correspondent for The Washington Post, where she received the 2013 Toner Prize for Excellence in Political Reporting.
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