President Obama’s decision to send American warplanes into Libya opened the nation’s third military theater in the Middle East—and quickly cast the administration onto more battlegrounds at home.
Three days into the first war he’s helped to start, Obama finds himself in an increasingly familiar position in relation to the Congress: detached, under fire, and going it largely alone.
American liberals who gravitated to Obama because he was the most plausible anti-war candidate broke sharply with him this weekend for projecting U.S. force into a corner of the world where it’s traditionally unwelcome, humanitarian intervention doctrine be damned. Even some congressional Democrats who voted for the Iraq invasion call the Libyan venture “gratuitous” and question Obama’s standing. Rep. Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio, on Monday called the U.S. involvement in Libya an "impeachable offense."
Capitol Hill Republicans, divided for weeks about how to handle Libya, are casting an array of aspersions on Obama’s decision; he’s been too slow, hasn’t adequately consulted Congress, has not developed a clear exit strategy, and not much of an entrance strategy either.
House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, in a statement released during Obama’s largely Libya-free speech in Rio de Janeiro on Sunday, hit him over process, saying his administration should “define for the American people, the Congress, and our troops what the mission in Libya is, better explain what America’s role is in achieving that mission, and make clear how it will be accomplished. Before any further military commitments are made, the administration must do a better job of communicating to the American people and to Congress about our mission in Libya and how it will be achieved.”
That, incongruously, aligned the speaker with Rep. Anthony Weiner, D-N.Y., the Brooklyn liberal who backs the bombing campaign but wants Obama to obtain congressional authorization.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., for weeks advocating a no-fly zone, adheres to—may be the dean of—the too-little, too-late school, saying on CNN’s State of the Union on Sunday, “He waited too long. There is no doubt in my mind about it. But now it is what it is. And we need now to support him and the efforts that our military are going to make. And I regret that we didn't act much more quickly and we could have, but that's not the point now.”
A party currently defined by its rhetorical commitment to deficit- and debt-reduction is also populated by denizens who argue that we did not commit quickly enough to a military incursion with no known price tag and no concretely defined endgame.
And Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., whose apprehension has matched McCain’s eagerness, offered a damning indictment of American intelligence on the ground, one with special resonance in the wake of Iraq. “But we really have not discovered who it is in Libya that we are trying to support,” he said on Sunday’s Face the Nation.
And, eight years after the birth of “freedom fries,” there is a Republican strain outraged that it was the French, long abhorred for not doing enough, who on Saturday had the first planes in-country.
The swiftness and ferocity of the backlash against Obama is an inversion of the reaction at the start of the war in Afghanistan, when the specter of the 2001 terrorist attacks both hushed opposition and isolated it to an easily caricatured anti-war left. Critics of the administration’s actions in Libya run no risk of being depicted as unpatriotic or portrayed as disrespectful.
“We used to relish leading the free world. Now, it's almost like leading the free world is an inconvenience,” Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said on Fox News Sunday—taunting remarks that drew none of the spring-loaded opprobrium that greeted criticism of the commander-in-chief the last time a major U.S. military incursion was launched, President George W. Bush.
If the criticism seems erratic, it is at least in part because the policy itself is nascent and amorphous, a moving target that’s tough to pin down. The Pentagon and White House have been meticulous in shying from any rhetoric that could bleed into talk of regime change—to the point that toppling Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi isn’t even an explicit U.S. goal—and from any cost-estimate figures.
Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has carefully put on a short timeline the lifespan of the U.S. control of the operation, calling it a matter of days before command of the coalition is transferred to, presumably, predominantly French and British authority, another sign of how much American ambition abroad was changed by the recent history in Afghanistan and Iraq.
The Pentagon’s credit-sharing gave political cover to the Democrats who did get the president’s back, notably Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., who said Saturday, “I support the actions taken today by our allies, with the support of several Arab countries, to prevent the tyrant Muammar Qaddafi from perpetrating further atrocities on the people of Libya. And I support the president's decision to deploy U.S. assets to help those allies to enforce a no-fly zone to protect Libyan civilians as laid out in the United Nations resolution. This U.S. military action was not taken lightly, and it was done in concert with a broad international coalition.”