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.