President Barack Obama is resisting pressure to deliver an Oval Office speech explaining his policy on Libya — in part, because he doesn’t want to equate what he regards as a smaller, time-limited mission with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Administration officials haven’t ruled out a big speech, but Obama is reluctant to make a major address on Libya until the United States hands over most command and combat duties to its allies.
That’s not to say the president won’t talk about Libya over the next few days, aides say, but he’s not likely to succumb to pressure to deliver a long, explanatory address to outline his elusive endgame to the nation until the path ahead becomes clearer.
There were signs that might come sooner rather than later on Thursday. For the first time since combat operations began, the vast majority of flights over Libya on Thursday were conducted by U.S. allies, a sharp contrast to the previous 24 hours when American planes flew the majority of missions.
And NATO member nations on Thursday evening approved a plan under which the alliance will assume command of the no-fly zone over Libya.
“We are already seeing a significant reduction in the number of U.S. planes involved in the operation as the number of planes from other countries increase,” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said after the decision by NATO. “Today we are taking the next step. All 28 allies have also now authorized military authorities to develop an operations plan for NATO to take on the broader civilian protections mission.”
Clinton’s reassuring assessment masked a ferocious round of last-minute negotiations, culminating in a four-way call between Clinton and the foreign ministers of Britain, France and Turkey on Thursday afternoon that sealed a preliminary deal.
“This was a hard diplomatic battle,” a senior administration official said. “Building consensus among 29 nations is never easy.”
Whatever happens, Obama is intent on putting the U.S. in the back seat. As part of an effort to downplay the scope of U.S. involvement, administration officials have flatly refused to call the enforcement of the Libyan no-fly, no-drive zone — which has included the launch of more than hundred cruise missiles and dozens of U.S. aircraft sorties — a “war.”
It is “a time-limited, scope-limited military action,” White House press secretary Jay Carney said Thursday.
Still, the lack of a clearly articulated endgame — or even a rationale for quickly committing U.S. naval and air assets in a third Muslim nation — is making House and Senate members in both parties increasingly uneasy.
Their main concern: That Obama’s oft-stated goal of ousting Qadhafi isn’t backed up by the U.N. resolution, which calls only for the use of force in establishing a no-fly-zone and protecting civilians, putting U.S. forces in awkward suspension between humanitarian goals and regime change.
“I think he needs to face the nation and tell the nation, and tell Congress, what the endgame is and how this going to play out,” Ohio Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown said on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” on Thursday.
“Congress is important in this, but the country particularly, addressing the nation about this.”
Brendan Buck, spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), said his boss also thought a more fulsome explanation to the American people would be “appropriate.”
Editorial writers around the country are also asking for a better explanation from the commander-in-chief, with Florida’s Sun-Sentinel, a key outlet in a 2012 battleground state, opining that “it is President Obama’s job to explain to the American people exactly what our mission is, why taking action in Libya is in the U.S. national interest, and what, specifically, is the expected outcome — and what comes next if that expected outcome does not materialize.”
Boehner, in particular, has been a critic of Obama’s handling of the Libyan action, and sent the president a detailed list of questions demanding to know the missions parameters, endgame and potential costs.
The White House offered a concession of sorts on Thursday, agreeing to Boehner’s request that top administration officials, led by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Defense Secretary Robert Gates, personally make their case to House members at a classified briefing next Wednesday.
Since the U.N. vote, Obama has made several brief statements on Libya, and answered a limited number of questions at press conferences he held during his trip to Latin America. But administration officials have rebuffed reporters who asked why Obama wouldn’t provide a fuller explanation for his Libyan policy.
“The president looks forward to communicating to the American public about Libya as he has on multiple occasions already, that he will obviously continue to do it,” Carney said Thursday. “I don’t have an announcement of a forum for the way he will do it next.
“The issue of format and forum is not the question here. It’s the fact that he has addressed this on multiple occasions and will continue to address this. I’m not ruling out format or forum in the future in any way.”
So far, the American public seems to back Obama’s actions, while giving the president mixed reviews for his leadership on Libya.
Six out of ten people polled by Reuters/Ipsos this week said they support military action in Libya. But only 17 percent described Obama as a “strong decisive leader,” with 36 percent labeling him as “indecisive [or] dithering.”
A near majority — 48 percent — rated him somewhere in the middle, as “cautious” and “consultative.”