WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Lack of leadership, indecision, confusion: These are some of the charges hurled at President Barack Obama for his handling of the conflict in Libya by Republicans who want his job.
Obama’s move to launch military operations in Libya without a clear end in sight has given his Republican opponents an opening to criticize his handling of foreign policy and accuse him of displaying weakness.
Libya is providing one more talking point on a Republican campaign script that until now has focused largely on criticizing the president’s handling of the U.S. economy and stubbornly high unemployment.
Democrats have done their share of complaining as well, and have agreed with Republicans who say the Obama administration has some explaining to do to Congress.
But the would-be Republican candidates are fanning the flames.
“We haven’t provided leadership in this administration,” Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour, pondering a 2012 run for the Republican presidential nomination, told Telesouth radio.
“Lots of confusion,” former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin told Fox News. “What is the mission here in Libya?”
The no-fly zone over Libya came too late, said former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty.
If done weeks ago as he had wanted, “It not only would have been successful, but would have given the rebels the window of opportunity to overthrow” Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, Pawlenty told Fox News.
“I would not have intervened,” former House of Representatives Speaker Newt Gingrich told NBC’s “Meet the Press.” “I think there were a lot of other ways to affect Gaddafi.”
The president did not help himself by seeming at first to lean against military action before deciding to direct the U.S. military to act in support of a U.N. resolution aimed at protecting Libyan civilians.
A mixed U.S. message has also given Republicans fodder for criticism: Obama says Gaddafi “needs to go,” but that the objective of U.S. and allies’ forces is not to topple him but rather protect Libyans from his forces.
“Republicans would be blind not to see an opening,” said Larry Sabato, a political science professor at the University of Virginia. “This is one of the biggest mistakes Obama has made, arguably. We’re still waiting for an explanation for what the real objectives are and how and when we get out of this.”
So far a solid majority of Americans back the operation. A Reuters/Ipsos poll found 60 percent of Americans support the effort by the United States and its allies.
But when asked to choose between descriptions of Obama’s leadership style, over a third picked “indecisive and dithering,” suggesting a potentially rich vein of criticism for Republicans to mine.
Among Republicans, 64 percent of those polled saw Obama’s leadership style as weak, while 63 percent of Democrats selected “cautious and consultative” to best describe him.
“American military action, international military action has saved an enormous number of lives in the past five days, and that is something that Americans should be very proud of,” said White House spokesman Jay Carney.
But experts say unless the United States finds a quick exit, Obama could see Libya emerge as an issue in his 2012 re-election campaign.
If Obama can reduce the U.S. presence and prod Gaddafi into stepping down, “then it’s a huge success for Obama and you won’t hear much about Libya from Republicans in 2012,” said Bruce Buchanan, a political science professor at the University of Texas.
Conditions on the ground in Libya and the unpredictability of war, however, could complicate Obama’s desire for a clean, speedy exit.
“If Gaddafi is able to shoot down X number of American planes then it changes the nature of the mission, and it’s harder for Obama to pull back,” said Julian Zelizer, a political science professor at Princeton University.
Editing by Vicki Allen