Jewish World Review
March 22, 2011
/ 17 Adar II, 5771
Obama's Libya decision likely to further weaken his re-election allure
Paul Richter and Christi Parsons
The fierce, American-led air assault on Libya is coming under growing political fire both at home and abroad, throwing the White House on the defensive and raising potential problems for President Barack Obama as he plans his 2012 re-election campaign.
High-altitude bombers from an international coalition pounded Libyan strongman Moammar Gadhafi's air defense and other military facilities for the third night Monday as the White House juggled another foreign policy crisis: the mounting challenge to President Ali Abdullah Saleh's regime in Yemen, which has been a crucial ally in U.S. counterterrorism efforts against al-Qaida.
Several of Yemen's military leaders, and senior members of its diplomatic corps, announced they were siding with protesters seeking to topple Saleh's regime.
Obama, who continued his five-day tour of Latin America, defended his administration's muscular approach in Libya, saying it was "very easy to square our military actions and our stated policies."
Speaking in Chile, Obama said U.S. military forces will focus narrowly on preventing Gadhafi's army from attacking Libyan civilians, as mandated in the resolution approved last week by the United Nations Security Council. But Obama also acknowledged that "Gadhafi needs to go."
He said the United States also will utilize non-military means, including economic sanctions and an arms embargo, to try to dislodge Gadhafi, who has held power since launching a military coup in 1969.
Earlier Monday, Obama sent a letter to congressional leaders assuring them that the administration is seeking a "rapid, but responsible transition" of military command of the Libyan operation to other members of the U.N.-backed coalition. The letter followed complaints that the president had failed to consult Congress before going to war.
Political analysts say Obama could benefit politically if Gadhafi is quickly ousted, or if the military effort to protect civilians and impose a no-fly zone produces a quick and relatively bloodless resolution. But if Gadhafi clings to power in Tripoli, and the conflict degrades into a brutal stalemate, criticism is likely to mount.
Complaints already have started to escalate. Some early advocates of military intervention, including Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., complained that Obama may have waited too late to help the opposition in Libya.
A contingent of liberal Democrats, normally allied to the president, condemned the use of military force. Some conservatives, as well as foreign policy experts, argued that Libya is not a vital U.S. strategic interest.
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An anti-war group announced plans for protests in Los Angeles, Chicago and nine other cities this week.
"The president seems to have angered almost every major group: He's either done too much, or too little, or he's done it too slowly," said James Lindsay, a former official in the Clinton White House official who is now with the Council on Foreign Relations. "There's a very real political risk for Barack Obama in all of this.
Among the critics Monday was Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., ranking minority member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, who is widely respected for his understanding of foreign policy and has often sided with the administration.
"There needs to be a plan about what happens after Gadhafi," Lugar said. "Who will be in charge then, and who pays for this all? President Obama, so far, has only expressed vague hopes."
Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va., complained that Americans haven't been given "clear statement of foreign policy," an understanding of who the Libyan rebels are, or a proper presentation of the issue to the public.
"This isn't the way our system is supposed to work," he said on MSNBC.
A group of liberal Democrats, including Reps. Jerrold Nadler of New York, Donna Edwards of Maryland, Dennis Kucinich of Ohio, and Maxine Waters and Barbara Lee of California, issued a statement over the weekend saying they "all strongly raised objections to the constitutionality of the president's actions."
Complaints also came from the Arab League, which initially called for imposing a no-fly zone in Libya, a decision that helped persuade the White House to join the fight. Russia's prime minister, Vladimir Putin, lashed out at Washington for launching what he called "a crusade," saying it justified Russia's military buildup.
Putin accused the United States of invading Iraq under "a completely false pretext," and destroying the leadership of that country. "Now it is Libya's turn, under the pretext of protecting the civilian population," he said. "But it is because of bombing strikes on the territory that the civilian population dies. Where is logic and conscience?"
Administration officials acknowledge the political risks of yet another U.S. military engagement in the Muslim world, after Iraq and Afghanistan, at a time when polls show most Americans want the president to focus on the battered economy. But they argue that president's insistence that he won't send ground troops, the involvement of other countries, and the promise to hand off command will help bolster support for Obama.
If this becomes a long-term military campaign with casualties, that's potentially a big public opinion hit for him," said Bryon Adams, vice president of Wilson Research Strategies, an opinion survey firm. He cited figures from the Pew Research Center showing that less one-third of Americans believe the United States had a responsibility to act in Libya.
Political analysts note abundant signs that even before the Obama administration intervened in Libya, the American public had become weary of war. Polls suggest as many as two out of three Americans no longer believe America's involvement in Afghanistan is worth the cost.
Adding to the administration's woes is widening concern that its strategic plan is only half written, as some officials have acknowledged. It is unclear how the White House and its allies intend to reach their ultimate goal, which is to try to displace Gadhafi, through use of a military no-fly zone.
Robert Danin, a former State Department official who is a Mideast specialist, said he could not imagine how the mission could prove a political winner for Obama.
Americans are likely to worry, he said, that the United States will be stuck with part of the bill for rebuilding Libya, as it has been for Iraq, Afghanistan and to a lesser extent in Pakistan and Egypt. And U.S. officials, he noted, are still unsure if the anti-Gadhafi forces are necessarily pro-America and pro-democracy.
"The politics of this are just bad," Danin said.
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© 2011, Tribune Co. Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.