Libya And The White House: What We Have Here Is A Failure To Communicate

The public, and Congress, are skeptical of the mission in Libya, and the reason for that is because the President has failed to tell us exactly why we're there and what we'll be doing.

The first Gallup Poll of public reaction to President Obama’s policy shift on Libya yields some rather surprising results:

PRINCETON, NJ — A Gallup poll conducted Monday finds more Americans approving than disapproving of the military action against Libya by the United States and other countries.

The March 21 poll was conducted just days after the United States joined other countries in conducting airstrikes against Libya to enforce a United Nations no-fly zone. The U.N. passed a resolution calling for a no-fly zone in response to reports that Libyan President Moammar Gadhafi had attacked Libyan forces opposed to his government.

The 47% of Americans approving of the action against Libya is lower than what Gallup has found when asking about approval of other U.S. military campaigns in the past four decades.

Americans showed the highest level of support for the 2001 military action in Afghanistan that was a response to the 9/11 terror attacks. Americans also widely supported U.S. airstrikes against Iraq in 1993 and the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003.

Support for the current involvement in Libya is also much lower than support for U.S. airstrikes against Libya in 1986 in response to the Libyan bombing of a German nightclub that killed two American servicemen.

Here’s how Operation Odyssey Dawn matches up against other American military actions over the past 25 years:

As the chart shows, the typical reaction of the public when a President sends American forces into action is to support the action by largely overwhelming numbers. The exceptions to that rule — Kosovo, Haiti, and Grenada — have either been engagements where the President in power clearly didn’t do a good job communicating what national interest was a stake (although I would submit that was next to impossible in the case of Kosovo and Haiti), or where the action was viewed skeptically because of other circumstances (Grenada, after all, occurred only a few days after the bombing of the Marine Barracks  in Beirut). Even in those cases, the President enjoyed majority support for his decision.

But not this time. American involvement in Libya has the least support of any military action in the last 28 years, which is somewhat surprising given the long history of animosity between the United States and Libya. In all honesty, given the history between the U.S. and Muammar Gaddafi, one would have thought that the American public would jump at any chance to get him, much as they did after Operation El Dorado Canyon in 1986.

There are several reasons one could ascribe to this, not the least of them being public burnout for military action after Iraq and Afghanistan and the possible realization that we cannot afford to be the world’s policeman at this very moment. Evidence of the former can be found in the polls that show that public support for the war in Afghanistan, which was tied to a direct attack on the American homeland, is at another all-time  low. Evidence for the latter, loosely at least, can be found in the public’s new found (since 2009 at least) concern for Federal spending. However, I think the main reason for public doubt about this mission can be placed squarely at the door of the White House and the President of the United States.

Just a week ago, it was being reported that the United States was essentially abandoning any effort to implement a no-fly zone over Libya due to the fact that it was fairly clear that it wasn’t likely to do any good due to the numerous setbacks suffered by the Libyan rebels. While it had been the publicly stated policy of the United States that Gaddafi had to go for at least a month, it was also being made clear that the United States was not all that eager to do anything, and neither NATO nor the UN was giving any signal that they were either. As we learned after the fact, though, there was still a debate going on in the Obama Administration and, at some point late last Tuesday, President Obama authorized Susan Rice to seek a resolution authorizing the use of force from the Security Council. And here we are.

There’s just one problem. At no point prior to the passage of UNSCR 1973 did the Obama Administration make any effort to sell this mission to the public, or even to Congress. Instead, the President didn’t speak publicly about it until just before he departed for his South American trip on Friday afternoon, a time when many people aren’t paying attention to the news to begin with. Then, bizarrely, the President gets on Air Force One and heads off on a diplomatic mission that could have easily been rescheduled under the circumstances. There was no Oval Office Address explaining why we needed to do this, No press  conference. Nothing. Is it really any surprise that the public, and Congress, are skeptical about what we’re doing in Libya when the President hasn’t taken the time to explain it adequately?

Of course, there may be a reason for that. This isn’t a strike against Gaddafi personally, it isn’t even an effort to destabilize his  regime. It’s some bizarrely defined, open-ended, totally unclear “humanitarian” mission. As noted above, those kind of missions don’t generally garner a lot of public support to begin with. Either the Obama Administration has completely failed to explain to the people why we’re involved in yet another military adventure, or they’re being deliberately vague because they know the public won’t be enthusiastic about a conflict that doesn’t really implicate then national security interests of the  United States. In either case, their failure to adequately communicate what they’re doing is shocking, and it’s the reason that the public is questioning their actions.


FILED UNDER: Africa, Barack Obama, Military Affairs, National Security, Politicians, United Nations, US Politics, World Politics,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020.


  1. PD Shaw says:

    I’m not necessarily a stickler for the whole Congressional declaration of war thing, but the idea that the President doesn’t appear to be even seeking some sort of post-hoc authorization from Congress, makes it feel like he’s placed one foot outside the door, prepared to jump if things go poorly. Since I don’t want to get trampled if that happens, I’m standing outside and will join the celebration if things go well.

  2. CBS News did a poll showing 67% approve. I checked wording of questions. Gallup was a short, direct question. CBS was longer, included the phrase “to protect civilians.”

    It’s interesting more as a matter of comparative polling methodologies, but I’d guess that “real” support is somewhere between the two, i.e. ~ 57%.

  3. mpw280 says:

    Could it be that the US being led to it by the weak kneed Europeans be a part of it as well? The Euros didn’t waste any time being against it after being for it and not having enough military supplies to manage the job for more than a week before they are running out of material. This goes to show how weak the Euro military’s really are both in terms of political support and material support of operations of this type. mpw

  4. Wiley Stoner says:

    I think the issue is whether or not he has the authority to do what he did. I can only imagine what would have happened had G.W. Bush done this. I remember Bush campaigning for quite a while, before congress and before the UN to get authorization and resolutions before he moved against Saddam. Obama was down in Rio. His coallition is half the size Bush had. I think we might be helping al Qaeda gain a foothold in Libya. What a great idea.

  5. MarkedMan says:

    Of course, an alternative theory is that Obama meant what he said. We are going to take out Libya’s air defenses, then hand command over to others. We are doing this in the context of a humanitarian mission to stop Qaddafi from killing civilians. It is not a war, and so he does not need Congressional approval. I don’t like it, but if it plays out that way, it will be hard to argue with given our history.

  6. Tano says:

    For the record.

    Although the overall approval number is the lowest on the list, the net approval over disapproval number is higher than for Kosovo or Haiti.

    CBS poll has support at 50/29.

    CNN finds 77% of people feeling that it is at least somewhat important to have US policy be for the eventual exit of Gadaffi, 83% feeling it at least somewhat important for us to be protecting innocent civilians. Support for no-fly zone is at 70%, opposition to ground troops also at 70% – i.e. very broad based support for the very mix of positions that Obama has embraced.

  7. Tlaloc says:

    honestly given that the American public still approves by a net +10% I think they are still FAR too accepting.

  8. michael reynolds says:

    While it had been the publicly stated policy of the United States that Gaddafi had to go for at least a month,

    No. Wrong. Check your dates.

    Obama is quoted as having said something like this in a phone call to Angela Merkel on February 26th.

    I believe his first public statement to that effect was on March 3.

    Neither of those is “at least a month.” In fact the firrt Libyan demonstrations occurred February 15th. And even that is barely a month. Then for a period of time it looked as i the rebels might win.

  9. michael reynolds says:

    President Barack Obama insisted Thursday that Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi “step down from power and leave,” his most explicit statement of support for rebels challenging Gaddafi’s four-decade rule in a region convulsed by uprisings against authoritarian regimes.

    That was March 3. Not quite 3 weeks ago.

  10. Jack says:

    One of the biggest surprises to me from the Obama administration is how poorly the public communication has been executed, especially after the campaign indicated that then Senator Obama was very good at staying “on message”.

    I think it may be a classic case of the “smart person’s problem” where they assume that anyone and everyone will be persuaded by the facts immediately instead of having opinions driven by PR, which is the reality.

  11. Wayne says:

    I admit I am a little perplexed about the situation. I tend to give Presidents some leeway on such things. However this administration’s positions on military action against Libya have been all over the place. I could support a tough stance on Libya or one will we hand it over in a very short order. It needs to be at least halfway spelled out. This wishy-washy stuff doesn’t cut it. Hopefully it is just a messaging problem and not a leadership problem.

  12. michael reynolds says:


    I think the problem is that the facts are nuanced. Ordinary people are not diplomats. People want black and white and in this case diplomacy demands shades of gray. To explain it in terms sufficiently blunt that even Fox News can manage to convey some portion of the message requires obliterating the diplomacy.

  13. Tsar Nicholas says:

    Actually, what you have here is an empty suit who’s not qualified to be dog catcher, much less president, and a public that’s been dumbed down by over 40 years of rank leftism in the public schools and the media. A talking mannequin leading a nation of blind sheep is not a recipe for success.

  14. ponce says:

    It doesn’t help that until recently Qaddafi was being praised for cooperating with the U.S.

    Perhaps Americans realize how stupid it is for America to attack a dictator who was doing everything we asked him to do.

  15. michael reynolds says:


    Yeah, that’s why Obama pulled off in 2 weeks what it took George HW Bush months to do.

    Oh, wait, I get it: he’s black. I forgot.

  16. Joe Mucia says:

    If you have to get Security Council approval for your military action, I think that would by default make it a war.

  17. tom p says:

    For about 6 months, I have had a sign out in front of my house, that said:


    Guess it is time to take that sign down.

  18. Jack says:

    Michael – Yes, that’s what I was trying to say.


  19. michael reynolds says:


    It’s a real problem, and I imagine it always has been. The public wants it in simple good guy/bad guy formula, and the diplomats are playing a game with layers of deniability, winks and nods, ambiguous relationships with some very ambiguous people.

    Back during WW2 we just publicly pretended that Stalin was a sweetheart, because quite obviously we needed him to beat Hitler. I don’t know if people bought that or not. I’m old, but not that old.

  20. So is President Obama Strother Martin or Paul Newman?

  21. G.A.Phillips says:

    I am glad that Obama is blowing the pi$$ out of that country and helping the poor bastards that were getting hit with air power and attacked with armor and artillery. But!!! Its the same old dithering and blathering and inconsistent blithering from the One and his collage kids…

    And not going before congress. lol…..dude….

  22. Conrad says:

    Perhaps if the Obama Administration had showed great interest in Libya, those with veto power in the U.N. would have never authorized it, and then bringing in a large coalition would have failed.

    I just checked using Google Maps the streets of Tripoli and how destroying it all like America did to Iraq’s would have been such a pity.

    Comparing popular opinion with all of those wars may show that popular opinion may not be too responsible.

  23. michael reynolds says:


    I’m starting to think Obama may be the son George HW Bush wished he had. George HW Bush but with better speaking skills.

    He’s cautious, seeks consensus, compromises, largely indifferent to his base, an inside-player, self-effacing when it serves his goals.

  24. Jay Tea says:

    Hey, Michael — it looks like Obama’s “smart diplomacy” just might succeed in destroying NATO as an organization. Turkey’s vetoing NATO taking charge, Germany’s pulling its warships out of the Med, Italy says it’s taking its bases back if NATO is NOT in charge, Norway has pulled out, Russia’s trash-talking the whole move…

    Can you tell us some more about the brilliant diplomatic maneuvering again, please? I wasn’t taking notes the first time.

    I didn’t agree with the strikes (they seemed about two weeks late; they’d have done the most good when the rebels were rising, not when they were on the verge of defeat, and I didn’t see the case for the US interest being served), but hoped like hell Obama would succeed. And I still do. But it’s getting harder and harder to fight off my cynicism.

    What’s your secret for keeping up your cockeyed optimism, Michael? ‘Cuz I sure could use a little right about now.


  25. michael reynolds says:

    they seemed about two weeks late. . .

    It’s been five weeks since the first demonstrations.

    It’s been 10 days since Hillary went to talk to Tunisia and Egypt and the rebel spokesman. Which would be the first time the rebels even had a chance to ask us to intervene.

    The air strikes began 4 days ago.

    Care to explain your math, genius?

  26. sookie says:

    There are several reasons one could ascribe to this, not the least of them being public burnout for military action after Iraq and Afghanistan and the possible realization that we cannot afford to be the world’s policeman at this very moment.

    The reason likely has to do with the current occupant of the WH.

  27. superdestroyer says:

    It is amazing how fast the White House has declined once David Axelrod left. If Axelrod was still there, I doubt that the U.S. would be involved in Libya.

    The only message that the Obama Administration knows how to effectively give is that it wants to tax the crap out of the rich (read whites) and give the money to core Democratic groups. When that message does not work, the White House has no idea how to deliver a message.

  28. ponce says:

    The humanitarian rebels were backing: “One of the accused shown to journalists was Alfusainey Kambi, 53, a disheveled Gambian wearing a bloodstained sport shirt and military fatigue trousers. He said he had been dragged from his home and beaten by three armed men who he said also raped his wife. ”,0,5238438.story

  29. matt says:

    SD : Yeah that’s why he keeps cutting taxes for you and me along with a shit of middle class and rich people…

    Rare is the day when you say something grounded in reality..

  30. superdestroyer says:


    If the Democrats has retained control of the House in 2010, the Democrats would have allowed all of the “Bush” tax cuts to expire and the Democrats would have pass a tax increase in January and hope that everyone forgot two years later.

    If you look at the progressive blogs, they are all begging for much higher taxes (on rich whites) and only want to cut defense spending.

  31. michael reynolds says:

    If you look at the progressive blogs, they are all begging for much higher taxes (on rich whites) and only want to cut defense spending.

    Really? Show me a blog where a liberal asked for a race-based tax.

    Show, or just admit what we all know, that you’re a racist.

  32. John the Piper's Son says:

    Another illegal and needless war. Our wonderful allies, Bahrain and Yemen, mow down their citizens without a word of censure from shuck and jive Obama. Obama is nothing more than a corporate stooge.
    This splendid little war is going to give birth to something that the American people will rue. The United States is finished. Money that could have revitalized our infrastructure has been pissed away on two wars and one “humanitarian” farce. The elite will end Social Security and the rest of the social security net. The Amerikkkan people can jump up and down, wave their made in China flags screaming “We’re number one.” And by God, we are. In stupidity.

  33. mantis says:

    Show me a blog where a liberal asked for a race-based tax

    He just assumes that all rich people are white. Because, well, you know…