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For Obama, a carefully calculated delay on justifying Libya air strikes

The timing was deeply controversial, but was designed to be a major part of the message itself, unfolding as the U.S. chalked up a measure of achievement in Libya and appeared to back away from lead management of the international military effort there.

April 01, 2011|By Christi Parsons, Washington Bureau

Reporting from Washington — As President Obama made his way to South America aboard Air Force One two weeks ago, he and his staff began planning a sweeping address to the American people that would explain in depth the airstrikes about to begin in Libya.

But it would be 10 days before he delivered his full justification for the attacks on the defenses of Libyan leader Moammar Kadafi.

The timing was deeply controversial, but was designed to be a major part of the message itself, unfolding as the U.S. chalked up a measure of achievement in Libya and appeared to back away from lead management of the international military effort there.

The delay helped to underscore the key ideas Obama wants to drive home: that the commitment differs dramatically from the deep investment of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars he inherited, largely because the U.S. shares responsibility for it with a broad coalition of international and regional partners.

To an American audience weary and skeptical after years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, Obama wanted to explain his reasoning when he could also demonstrate some closure.

"Instead of saying, 'I promise this is the way it's going to be,' he was able to go before the American people and say, 'Here's what I said I would do, and I did it,'" said one senior administration official, who requested anonymity to discuss the deliberations.

So 10 days after ordering the airstrikes, Obama last week launched his campaign to convince Americans that he did the right thing. He described the reason for the strikes in a prime-time address, and gave interviews in the following days with network news anchors.

The president's decision to withhold his full explanation drew complaints across the political spectrum. Republicans and Democrats in Congress complained that he didn't seek their sign-off in advance, contrary to his position as a candidate.

Some liberals joined with conservatives in objecting that Obama owed the country an explanation right away — if not before the attack.

But Obama's advisors said they wanted to break out of past practice on messaging, much like the president was breaking with the foreign policy of his predecessor, George W. Bush.

"We wanted to make the point that this was not an Iraq-like war engagement," said the official. "The commitment was limited in duration and scope, and so the ways in which you deliver that message help convey it. It's not just what you say but how you say it."

It has been common practice for U.S. presidents to settle somberly into the Oval Office for a broadcast address or to stand before a podium to announce a military action just hours after it has begun.

The Bush administration spent months laying out its case for the Iraq war, warning of weapons of mass destruction and mushroom clouds. The warnings have since been exposed as unfounded, but public support was high when the war began, and Congress granted Bush its authorization to use military force.

No public sales effort was necessary for President Clinton to authorize the use of American force in a bombing campaign to stop ethnic cleansing in Kosovo. Americans were convinced by repeated displays of violence against civilians.

Clinton announced his action in 1999 in an address to the nation from the Oval Office, just as Bush would do with the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

Obama chose a different course, one whose success is yet to be determined. Public opinion researchers are still examining the reaction to the president's explanations.

As he flew to South America two weekends ago, Obama conferred with key advisors, including Tom Donilon, his national security advisor, and Ben Rhodes, his lead foreign policy speechwriter. Also with him were new White House Press Secretary Jay Carney and his deputy, Josh Earnest.

The team knew he wanted to speak once the airstrikes started and throughout the five-day trip.

So, following the plan, Obama made a brief statement to the media after the bombing started on March 19, on his first day in Brazil. He also discussed the airstrikes in two news conferences in South America.

After he returned to Washington, he laid out his thinking in greater detail March 28, outlining in his evening address to the nation what analysts began to call his foreign policy "doctrine."

But the message itself was as different as its timing. It was crafted very narrowly, specifically to avoid broad application. There is no doctrine, Obama has said.

In his explanations this last week, Obama has been careful to tie the principles involved to U.S. strategic interests. He stressed the "unique" circumstances of Libya, where violence against civilians was imminent, Libyans themselves were calling for help and Arab countries were in support.

In interview after interview, Obama talked about future plans with a heavy emphasis on nonmilitary action, involving political, economic and diplomatic tools.

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