One day into a military campaign in Libya he had said he wanted to avoid, President Obama finds himself facing backpedaling allies abroad and doubts at home about the scope of the mission.
With U.S. and European forces pressing an aerial attack and imposing a no-fly zone over Libya, and dictator Muammar el-Qaddafi renewing calls for resistance against Western interference, Obama declined to address the Libyan operations directly. Instead, speaking from a Rio de Janeiro during a five-day Latin America tour, Obama touched on broader encomiums to democracy and criticism of what he called a Qaddafi regime “determined to brutalize its own citizens.”
“We know that different nations take different paths to realize democracy, and we know that no one nation should impose its will on another,” Obama said.
The speech came as the dynamics of a coalition cobbled together behind a Libyan incursion shifted, as U.S. military officials declined to specify when or how they would transfer control over coalition action, and as congressional leaders pushed Obama for more detail about American intentions.
In a statement released on Sunday, House Speaker John Boehner said, “The President is the commander-in-chief, but the Administration has a responsibility to 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.”
The Arab world, whose support the U.S. had insisted on enlisting to brand its coalition as globally valid, showed less than four-square support on Sunday.
"What has happened in Libya differs from the goal of imposing a no-fly zone, and what we want is the protection of civilians and not bombing other civilians," Arab League Secretary General Amr Moussa told reporters, according to Agence France-Presse, a week after the 22-nation league had urged the United Nations to impose a no-fly zone over Libya.
Later, a Pentagon spokesman said the Arab League had affirmed its support of the no-fly enforcement scheme.
On a full tour of Sunday-morning talk shows, Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, carefully avoided any rhetoric smacking of nation-building—the latest sign that, after weeks of hedging against a Libyan incursion, the Obama administration, after becoming enmeshed in one, is painfully aware of leeriness of opening a third front in a Muslim country after nearly a decade fighting in two others.
Mullen deemed operations “so far, very, very effective,” saying he had not heard of civilian casualties. He repeatedly pointed out that the French had launched the first aerial assault and mentioned buy-in from Arab League nations, saying Qatari planes were on their way to Libya.
Mullen sought to minimize both the intentions of the military campaign in Libya and American involvement there. Asked on NBC’s Meet the Press whether the mission could be accomplished with Qaddafi still in power, Mullen said, “That’s certainly, potentially, one outcome.”
Vice Adm. William Gortney, speaking at a Pentagon briefing Sunday afternoon, said coalition missiles had “significantly” degraded Qaddafi’s surface-to-air missile capabilities and boxed in his ground forces, working to gird Benghazi, a rebel stronghold. Gortney said the coalition had the capability to control Libyan airspace.
Gortney, too, said he was uncertain of the timeline or details of the handover of command control.
He reiterated that Qaddafi was not a target: “We are not going after Qaddafi.”
Gortney also reported no indication of civilian casualties and said all air crew had returned safely to their bases.
As airborne forces from more nations arrive in Libya, they would join patrols of the no-fly zone, he said.
The long and enduring American involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan has stifled national designs on regime change and nation-building, caution borne out in the mixed domestic reaction, ranging from outright opposition within Obama’s own party to queries about the administration’s plans—not just in Libya, but in other pockets of Mideast unrest.
Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and a skeptic of action in Libya, depicted an amorphous ally in the Libyan masses.
"We really have not discovered who it is in Libya we are trying to support,” Lugar said on CBS’s Face the Nation, noting that many Libyans had aided Iraqi forces against the United States.
Pointing to government violence against citizens in Bahrain, Lugar indicated the U.S. could find itself beckoned into a regionwide set of conflicts.
“Now, we had better get this straight from the beginning or there is going to be a situation in which war lingers on country after country, situation after situation, all of them on a humane basis, saving people,” he said.
It remained unclear how long the U.S. would direct the operation, with Mullen laying out unspecified plans for the U.S. to take a diminished role.
The details of command and control, Mullen said, would be worked out “in the next few days.”
Those types of questions will likely only increase in coming days, as Congress’s role in what has been described only unofficially as “war” will likely loom as a large question on Capitol Hill.