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.