Too Late and Too Weak

The Republican candidates pummel President Obama’s Libyan strategy.

Read more of Slate’s coverage of the  Libya conflict.

President Obama

The GOP’s cartoon image of President Obama is that he’s slow, indecisive, and deferential to foreigners, so there is much snickering in the Republican ranks over the president’s Libya policy. He allowed the French—the French!—to lead the international campaign against Qaddafi. And inside the Obama administration, according to some reporting, it was the women in his foreign policy team who pushed for stronger action.

Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who announced Monday he was forming a presidential exploratory committee, played the French card. “When we have President Sarkozy dictating the pace and terms and conditions for security initiatives in the world, we know that we’ve entered a new era in terms of America’s place and leadership and vision for security around the world, and that concerns me greatly,” Pawlenty told supporters on a conference call. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., worked the gender angle: “I don’t know how many people have died as we wait to do something. Thank God for strong women in the Obama administration.”

Sarah Palin called the president’s approach to Libya “dithering.” Newt Gingrich dubbed him the “spectator-in-chief.” This reinforces the general critique that President Obama is too languorous on all issues. People already disappointed that he has not turned around the economy will take these Libya charges as just more evidence of his chronic sluggishness.

As a specific foreign policy critique, though, the political upside of these Republican attacks is small. Certain interventionists in the GOP may be unhappy about Obama’s pace, but most Americans are not anxious for a protracted Libyan intervention. And there’s no Republican challenger whose foreign policy credentials are so sterling that this moment provides a rationale for their candidacy.

And the cautious Obama is actually the one voters chose in the 2008 election—a president who would be deliberate, focused on international cooperation, slow to take military action, and wary of a longer commitment. Voters seem to sympathize. Republicans have attacked Obama regularly as weak, but voters give him his highest marks on handling foreign affairs and the war in Afghanistan when asked to rate him on his domestic and foreign policy performance. Republicans criticized his handling of the protests in Egypt, but the voters did not.

The 2012 GOP presidential hopefuls who criticize Obama would like voters to measure the president against an ideal. They suggest that if the president had been decisive and called for military action earlier it would have destroyed Qaddafi and transferred power to a new benign government. Republicans say that Obama is a follower. The president and White House aides say that they are leading, but in a new way, one that is sensitive, for example, to anti-American sentiment created by the last time America made a mess of things by acting too rashly in Iraq.

Still, the administration’s policy has raised new questions for which it doesn’t seem to have answers: What is the specific goal of the mission? When will it end? Why was Congress marginalized? Potential administration allies such as Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va., said the policy lacked “clarity.” Republican Sen. Richard Lugar of Indiana, once Obama’s foreign policy tutor, raised a series of basic questions that should already have been answered about whom the United States is supporting in Libya and whether this commits the United States to future interventions. The biggest question is: How do you keep the mission as limited as Obama made it seem in his news conference Monday when your Secretary of State is also saying “Qaddafi must go.”

This is the messy business of reacting to fast-moving events, say White House advisers. They detail the rush of meetings and phone calls that took place over the last few days securing support for the United Nations and Arab League resolutions, ensuring international cooperation and legitimacy for the operation. On Monday the president made the comparison to the previous administration, arguing that building a coalition was necessary because “in the past there have been times where the United States acted unilaterally or did not have full international support. And as a consequence, typically, it was the United States military that ended up bearing the entire burden.”

The president and administration aides stressed the limitations of the mission. It was an international effort to address a humanitarian crisis spurred by Qaddafi’s actions, not an aggressive intervention. Aides are also working in other ways to expand the context in which its actions would be judged. When National Security Adviser Tom Donilon briefed the press on Sunday, he didn’t start his discussion of the Middle East with Libya. He started by talking about the constitutional referendum in Egypt, the message being that the administration has its eye on a broader picture.

The administration is signaling that an initial phase of heavy U.S. military operations will last only a matter of days. After that, U.S. planes will join other nations to maintain the no-fly zone but command will transfer to other coalition partners. If Qaddafi isn’t deposed or forced to flee, then he could become a chronic condition. The tug of war will continue over whether Obama could have caused a different result by acting sooner, but the audience for that debate will be small. Qaddafi is not an imminent threat likely to capture people’s attention.

In the spring of 1999, John McCain improved his presidential chances by arguing for intervention in Kosovo. Today’s crop of GOP candidates are seeking to do the same, but none of them has the strong foreign policy credentials that make them obvious leaders.

The most interesting GOP response to the Libya challenge so far has been from Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour. He declined to attack the president. “Whenever our men and women are involved in military action, every American stands with them and supports them as I do,” he said. “This is not the time to critique what the administration has done or will do.”

Barbour’s defense and foreign policy positions have been distinctly less neoconservative than many of his opponents. Barbour has called for defense cuts and questioned the ongoing mission in Afghanistan. Barbour may be pitching to deficit-conscious and isolationist Tea Party members, but it’s also a message that could work in a general election where he will try to make the case that he’s non-ideological and pragmatic. If he’s able to do that, it’ll be a neat trick. It’s also Obama’s strategy.

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