March 29th, 2011
05:00 AM ET

Obama's fragile public support for Libya operation

Editor's Note: Dr. James Lindsay is a Senior Vice President at the Council on Foreign Relations (where he blogs), co-author of "America Unbound: The Bush Revolution in Foreign Policy" and a former director for global issues and multilateral affairs at the National Security Council.

By Dr. James Lindsay – Special to CNN

“What you see depends upon what you are looking for.”

That old political saying almost certainly held true for President Obama’s address to the nation Monday night on Libya.

Viewers who support Operation Odyssey Dawn no doubt saw reason for reassurance. Viewers skeptical of the wisdom of intervening in yet another country probably saw few of their concerns addressed.

Obama’s goal with the speech was to solidify, if not increase, support for Operation Odyssey Dawn.

The early polls are troubling; support for his policy is under 50 percent. A Pew poll released on Monday showed that more Americans (50 percent) doubt that the United States and its allies have a clear goal with their “kinetic military operations” against Libya than believe they do.

Just as bad for the White House, six in ten Americans think we are headed for a lengthy entanglement in Libya, while just one in three think that it will end quickly.

Obama’ speech contained no surprises. He made the same arguments that he did during his three press conferences in Latin America and in his radio address on Saturday.

In time-honored presidential fashion, Obama framed Operation Odyssey Dawn as a decision driven by America’s values and interests. Americans have a stake in the future of the Middle East he argued, and while “some nations may be able to turn a blind eye to atrocities” overseas “the United States is different.”

To viewers worried about yet another military quagmire, the president further stressed that America’s military role in Libya is both limited and shared. Command of Operation Odyssey Dawn will be transferred to NATO on Wednesday; thereafter “the United States will play a supporting role.” This transfer means that “the risk and cost of this operation - to our military and to American taxpayers - will be reduced significantly.”

But Obama glided over many of the objections that critics have raised since Operation Odyssey Dawn began. He barely acknowledged complaints that he abused his authority in ordering the operation, only saying that he had “consulted with Congress.”

This is a long cry from the position he took in a 2007 interview with the Boston Globe. Then he said: “The President does not have power under the Constitution to unilaterally authorize a military attack in a situation that does not involve stopping an actual or imminent threat to the nation.”

More important for U.S. policy going forward, Obama left muddled what he hopes to accomplish with further military operations. He insisted that “our military mission is narrowly focused on saving lives” and that while we seek Oaddafi’s ouster we are pursuing that goal “though non-military means.”

Yet he also took credit for the fact that “We hit Gadhafi’s troops in neighboring Ajdabiya, allowing the opposition to drive them out” and that “our coalition will keep the pressure on Gadhafi’s remaining forces.” This raises question, as one skeptic put it, whether Obama is “engaged in the Strategy-That-Shall-Not-Be-Named, which is to say, regime change.”

On the question that may be most troubling to Americans - how long the fighting in Libya will go on - Obama had little to say beyond noting that Gadhafi’s ouster “may not not happen overnight.”

That’s the real rub for Obama. Whatever plaudits his speech tonight receives, what matters most is whether his policy works.

Should Gadhafi be chased from power in the next few weeks, the public will rally to Obama’s side and the criticisms will be lost in the celebration.

But if the struggle for Libya drags on, Obama’s fine words will not be enough to keep the fragile public support he currently has from collapsing.

soundoff (4 Responses)
  1. thebardofmurdock

    Harvard Men At War

    From up upon the podium in tailored suit and tie,
    Between the flags of freedom crossed, and in the public eye,
    The Harvard man made his address to critics, in reply,
    And laid out for the audience his modern battle cry.

    Recall that other Harvard man, who at the San Juan Hill,
    Did call ‘Rough Riders, follow me!’ and led the charge until
    The foot soldiers and cavalry were summoned by his will,
    And overcame the enemy with valor and with skill.

    Not for our modern Crimson man do words like those resound,
    For in their stark grave melody is heroism found.
    Instead we hear of diplomats who finally come around,
    And handing off the fighting with no boots upon the ground.

    So rally ’round the UN flag: we fight for powder blue!
    Leave well behind the stars and stripes, and patriotic hue.
    We’ll fight for days or weeks for sure, and then we’ll say adieu,
    And hope our allies have resolve and heart to follow through.

    March 29, 2011 at 7:22 am | Reply
  2. j. von hettlingen

    I think it was a huge mistake that Obama didn't consult the congress prior to joining the rally of the coaltion forces. He could run the risk of being impeached. His unilateral action could be preceived as a breach of the consitution.

    March 29, 2011 at 7:30 am | Reply
  3. Onesmallvoice

    I find it a gigantic insult to my intelligence that Barack Obama thinks that we're dumb enough to put any credence in what he says about Libya. Anybody with half a brain would know that the reason that the West wants to get rid of Mohammar Qadaffy and replace him with some pro-Western cronie is to get control of Libya's oil.

    March 29, 2011 at 10:18 pm | Reply

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