Obama Under Pressure to Clear ‘Ambiguity’ From Libya Strategy

US President Barack Obama
Barack Obama US president. Photographer: Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

Almost a week after U.S. warplanes began dropping bombs on Libya, House Speaker John Boehner fired off a letter to President Barack Obama that posed a basic question: What are we fighting for?

Obama’s responses to unrest throughout the Middle East and his actions in Libya show an approach to projecting U.S. power that contrasts with the certitude of President George W. Bush’s doctrine of unilateral preemption of perceived threats and promotion of democracy.

The emerging Obama doctrine balances humanitarian ideals and pragmatic national interests, places a premium on international backing and accepts limited goals.

The result is not easily explained.

“The Obama administration does not have a simple tale to tell, and the tale it has told it has told poorly,” said James Lindsay, a former national security staff member in President Bill Clinton’s administration. “If you don’t tell your story well, you start off with less support.”

In seeking to limit the commitment of U.S. forces and gain an international cast for military intervention in Libya, Obama has embarked on a complex strategy -- one stirring criticism that he is endangering success with muddled goals.


In his letter to Obama, Boehner challenged the president to explain the “contradiction” between his declaration that Muammar Qaddafi “must go” and repeated administration statements that regime change isn’t the aim of the military campaign. Senator Richard Lugar of Indiana, the senior Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said the administration’s “ambiguity” may hurt the military operation and public support.

Lugar’s warning is reflected in a Gallup poll conducted March 21 that found support for the Libya mission is the lowest at the outset of a U.S. military action in the past three decades. Forty-seven percent of Americans approve of the Libya mission, while 37 percent disapprove. By comparison, 51 percent approved of the intervention in Kosovo in 1999 and 76 percent approved at the start of the war in Iraq in 2003.

Despite the criticism, Edward Djerejian, a former U.S. ambassador to Syria and Israel, said the military mission in Libya flows from a “coherent” strategy.

‘Logical Approach’

“The administration’s policy is to avoid a humanitarian disaster and try to level the playing field in Libya to give the rebels more opportunity to confront the Qaddafi regime,” said Djerejian, founding director of the Baker Institute for Public Policy at Rice University in Houston. “That certainly seems like a logical approach to adopt without the U.S. being overstretched.”

White House press secretary Jay Carney told reporters yesterday that while some of the administration’s critics are “perhaps driven by politics,” the questions from lawmakers “are legitimate and need to be answered.”

The president hasn’t made any public statements since his return from Latin America March 23. Carney said Obama “looks forward to communicating with the American public” on Libya.

The danger of public support eroding may be lessened by the narrow scope of the campaign, said Lawrence Korb, a former Defense Department official now at the Center for American Progress, a policy research group in Washington.

“No Americans are dying, and it’s not costing that much money,” Korb said.

The airstrikes backed by the Obama administration headed off a potential massacre in Benghazi, Libya’s second-largest city, that was already stirring comparisons to the 1995 killing of 8,000 Bosnian Muslims in Srebrenica, Djerejian said. Inaction in the face of the threat would have been an international embarrassment for the U.S., particularly after the Arab League endorsed creation of a no-fly zone, he said.

Added Pressure

The military campaign, on top of a sanctions regime targeting financial assets of the Libyan leader and his allies, adds new pressure on Qaddafi’s supporters to abandon him, Djerejian said.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton alluded to the strategy when she said March 19 in Paris that the bombing campaign would “make a new environment” in which people close to Qaddafi might turn on him.

While that may amount to “a roll of the dice,” Djerejian said, the outcome cannot be assured when the U.S. enters any conflict. “The end games are never guaranteed in any of these scenarios,” he said.

The president has joined his stance that Qaddafi must relinquish power to a United Nations-sanctioned coalition with a mission limited to protecting the civilian population. That leaves open the possibility of a stalemate or a resolution in which Qaddafi retains a role in government, or perhaps even prevails.

Goals in Tension

R. Nicholas Burns, the third-ranking official in the State Department during Bush’s second term, said the tension among the goals in Libya may be exacerbated as the U.S. hands over more control of the military operation to its partners.

While the U.S. has interpreted the UN resolution’s mandate broadly to include tactical air strikes in support of rebel forces, coalition partners might be more reluctant to do so, said Burns, now a professor at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The air campaign so far has not stopped Qaddafi’s forces, and a protracted civil war is a likely outcome, he said.

“When times get tough, if there are civilian casualties, God forbid, if there’s a failure in any way in the war effort, there will be second-guessing,” Burns said. “They’ll perhaps pursue an overly restrictive and narrow interpretation of the mandate.”

Arab League Secretary General Amr Moussa already has criticized air strikes in Libya, and Arab nations that promised assistance for the mission have been slow to provide support, Burns said.

“It’s not easy to hold together a political coalition in war,” Burns said.

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