Airstrikes in Libya; Questions Back Homehttp://www.nytimes.com/2011/
WASHINGTON — President Obama’s decision to authorize military strikes against Libya exposed him to another set of political crosscurrents from right and left and further complicated his plan to keep his agenda focused on the domestic economy.
As the air assault continued for a second day in Libya, Mr. Obama sought to project an air of normalcy and play down the role of the United States. He continued his visit to South America without altering his schedule, and barely mentioned, in a televised speech from Brazil, that allied forces were engaged in another military intervention in a Muslim world.
But some Republicans suggested that Mr. Obama had waited too long to protect the rebels against Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi, had been too reluctant to employ American power and had not clearly explained the objectives of the action. Their comments maintained a pattern of attacking Mr. Obama as a weak leader at home and abroad.
“I don’t know what finally got the president to act, but I’m very worried that we’re taking the back seat rather than a leadership role,” Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, said on “Fox News Sunday.”
The action against Colonel Qaddafi’s forces drew support from many Democrats, but also concern. A coalition of liberal Democrats voiced objections, arguing that the president overstepped his authority by not seeking Congressional approval before authorizing the airstrikes.
The airstrikes against the Libyan government crystallized the complexities and risks of addressing the multifaceted uprisings in the Arab world and could leave the administration stretched thin as its heads toward a budget showdown with Republicans in Congress and a decision by summer about how quickly to reduce the American military presence in Afghanistan. Even for a president whose term has been filled with unforeseen events, the commencement of a military action that held the risk of becoming a third war at a time of upheaval in the Middle East created a new dynamic whose consequences were especially hard to predict.
Mr. Obama had intended for the third year of his presidency to be devoted to showing that he had learned the lessons of the midterm election, was able to rise above partisanship and focus on solutions to unemployment and the nation’s long-term economic problems. For the most part, he has stuck doggedly to his message about preparing the nation for the challenges of the future, often choosing to stay out of day-to-day political battles and legislative maneuvering on Capitol Hill as he lays the groundwork for his re-election campaign and seeks to regain the support of independent voters and moderates.
But with the developments in Libya, a man who reached the White House on the strength of a forceful antiwar sentiment four years ago now has three major military conflicts under his command, with polls showing a limited appetite for increased American intervention.
The White House brushed aside criticism on Sunday, particularly assertions from leading Republicans that Mr. Obama was too slow taking action in Libya. The president made only a passing reference to Libya near the end of a 20-minute address in Rio de Janeiro, where he hailed the democratic uprisings taking place across the Middle East.
“The future of the Arab world will be determined by its people,” Mr. Obama said. “No one can say for certain how this change will end, but I do know that change is not something that we should fear.”
Mr. Obama, who inherited the Iraq and Afghanistan wars when he took office, has spoken repeatedly during the last two years about demanding a multilateral approach to conflicts. The decision to join in a military assault against Colonel Qaddafi seemed sure to prompt further debate about whether there is a consistent Obama doctrine for defining national interest and the need for the use of force, could strain relations with liberals who are already uneasy about the president’s escalation of the war in Afghanistan and, should it not go well or continue for weeks or months, divert attention from his domestic policy and political initiatives.
The president’s national security adviser, Thomas Donilon, told reporters on Sunday that Libya was different from Bahrain and other countries where uprisings have taken place in the Middle East, particularly because the Arab League asked for intervention in Libya. He declined to speculate how long the military action there would last, but added, “This is a targeted mission.”
The split-screen optics of Mr. Obama — appearing in Brazil, even as military action intensified in Libya and the prospect of a government shutdown in Washington remained a possibility — brought to life one of his selling points in the 2008 presidential race. When Senator John McCain suspended his campaign to focus on the economy, Mr. Obama said, “It is going to be part of the president’s job to deal with more than one thing at once.”
That axiom has been tested multiple times during the first two years of his presidency.
“The effort is to find a balance between the foreign policy crisis of the moment and the long-term domestic challenges,” Dan Pfeiffer, the White House communications director, said in an interview. “The challenge is to not let events you can’t control overwhelm the presidency.”
The prospective 2012 Republican presidential contenders, who are quick to dispense criticism of Mr. Obama on nearly every topic, were quiet on Sunday about Libya. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich was the only prospective candidate to issue a statement, criticizing the military action as “opportunistic amateurism without planning.”
“What is the Obama standard?” Mr. Gingrich said. “What is success? What are we prepared to do to achieve that success?”Mr. Obama has pledged that no American ground troops would be deployed to Libya, but some Republican leaders said he needed to be clearer about the goals of the United States.