President Obama is in danger of becoming something he never intended—a war president, under attack from all sides.
With America already deeply involved in two conflicts, in Afghanistan and Iraq, the prospect of getting immersed militarily in a third Muslim country had been extremely unpalatable for Obama. The president ran to a large extent as an antiwar candidate in 2008, and he resisted engagement in Libya for weeks. But finally, he decided that the best course was to launch airstrikes in conjunction with U.S. allies including France and Britain and with the approval of the United Nations Security Council, but not Congress.
He said he wanted to use air power to impose a no-fly zone to stop Libyan ruler Muammar Qadhafi from slaughtering civilians and decimating opposition forces. At the same time, while Obama said he wanted Qadhafi to surrender power, he asserted that the no-fly zone wasn't aimed specifically at forcing the issue. That seemed a somewhat baffling distinction that lacked credibility, but Obama and his senior advisers say their goal is to use international sanctions against Qadhafi to push him out, which White House officials believe is the will of the Libyan people.
But many members of Congress are taking aim at Obama's decision, for a variety of reasons. Hawks such as Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona say Obama's approval of the no-fly zone was too little, too late. "He waited too long," McCain told CNN. "There is no doubt in my mind about it." Beyond this hawkish perspective, Obama's critics on the left and right are raising questions about whether he acted inappropriately, or even illegally under the War Powers Act, by failing to get congressional approval in advance for military action.
The criticism for failing to consult Congress comes from all sides, including from liberals such as Democratic Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio, libertarians such as Republican Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, and conservatives such as GOP Rep. Candice Miller of Michigan. Among the questions being asked of Obama: What is America's vital interest in Libya? How does the president define success? What is the exit strategy for extricating the United States from the conflict? Kucinich told MSNBC: "The president is acting outside of the authority of the Constitution. There is no question about that whatsoever." He added, "We have money for endless wars, and we can't take care of things here at home."
Others, including Republican Rep. Chris Gibson of New York, say the military and the federal government are already overwhelmed with other problems, such as the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and the burgeoning deficit. "Now is not the time to take on new missions," Gibson says. "The Libyans must decide their own fate, and we should stop our military operations immediately."
Last week, during a trip to Latin America, Obama tried to reassure the legislators that he was not going to immerse the country in another protracted, costly war. But House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio countered that Obama needs to "better explain" the U.S. role in Libya and "do a better job of communicating to the American people and to Congress about our mission in Libya and how it will be achieved."
What Obama is showing is a resistance to snap judgments, which is interpreted by some as timidity and dangerous passivity, and by others as prudence and admirable caution. Taking a measured approach to using military force may be unpopular among hard-liners of all types, and it guarantees that Obama will be criticized by his natural adversaries and his natural friends. "It goes with the territory," says Democratic pollster Geoff Garin. "This is one aspect of being president where you're damned if you do and damned if you don't." But one group seems relatively satisfied with Obama's handling of the Libya crisis so far: everyday Americans. Seven out of 10 voters approve of American participation in the no-fly zone, according to a new CNN/Opinion Research poll, and half support Obama's handling of the crisis, while 41 percent disapprove. A CBS poll found that 50 percent approve and only 29 percent disapprove.
Obama's advisers say this level of public backing counts for far more than all the second-guessing from the critics in Washington.