Libya: Barack Obama's step from Nobel winner to warrior

By Andrew North
BBC News, Washington

image captionPresident Barack Obama's approval rating hovers around 50%, according to recent polls

It probably wasn't what the Nobel committee had in mind when it awarded the Peace Prize to President Barack Obama two years ago.

Two months later he ramped up the war in Afghanistan, sending in 30,000 extra US troops.

Now he has ordered massive air strikes on Libya - with United Nations backing, but still with the United States in the lead.

Judged by his actions, this supposedly anti-war president looks almost as warlike as President George W Bush.

If you include Mr Obama's increased use of drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen, he's got the US involved in more conflicts than his much-criticised predecessor.

Judged by Mr Obama's words though, he is in plenty of internal conflict over his decisions.

Far from beating the drums of war, he keeps highlighting the risks and promising US action on Libya will last "days not weeks".

Take a glance at the opinion polls and you can see why.

Less than a week since the first cruise missiles were launched, the clock is already ticking on how long Americans will back him.

image captionSurveys suggest many Americans are not in favour of US military intervention in Libya

Polls by Gallup, CBS and CNN since the attack show Mr Obama's approval ratings hovering around 50%.

Hardly encouraging, when the start of a military campaign is usually the high point of public support.

Surveys gave President Bush 90% approval ratings when he went into Afghanistan after the 9/11 attacks.

Even for the early stages of the 2003 Iraq invasion, his ratings were over 60%. They went downhill from then on.

When you dig deeper into the figures for Libya, there are already reasons for White House unease.

Only 47% of respondents were in favour of US military actions in Libya, according to a recent Gallup poll.

American interests?

"We need better judgment when we decide to send our young men and women into war," said one of the candidates in the 2008 White House race.

image captionUS aircraft have been attacking Col Muammar Gaddafi's forces for the better half of a week

He listed three key benchmarks: "an imminent threat", protecting "American interests" and a "plan to succeed and to exit".

That candidate of course was Barack Obama. Does President Obama meet his own benchmarks in going into Libya?

Fewer than 40% of people surveyed for the CBS poll believed Libya is "very important" to US interests, with far more sitting on the fence.

Many Americans are bewildered that Mr Obama of all people has got them into another war - one they fear could turn into a costly Iraq-style quagmire at a time when they are being asked to tighten their belts.

When some Democratic senators held a telephone news conference to show support for the president, they were peppered with sceptical questions about how long it would last, how much it would cost and why.

Does the action in Libya pass the "mother test", one reporter asked?

In other words, can the Obama administration justify putting American lives on the line for a mission some in Congress are already saying is not clearly defined?

Wary mood

Leading that charge is the Republican House Speaker John Boehner, but rumblings of discontent are being heard from the Democratic side too.

The White House insists the mission is clear - that if it had not acted against Col Muammar Gaddafi, it would have meant a Rwanda-style genocide against the rebel stronghold of Benghazi and a humanitarian crisis destablising North Africa.

image captionUS Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has repeatedly urged Col Gaddafi to step down

If the Libyan leader is toppled relatively quickly, Mr Obama will look good - and silence those critics who have accused him of lacking courage.

But such is the wary mood, it is unlikely Americans will stomach many US casualties - as they did with Iraq and Afghanistan.

If that happens, watch for comparisons with another US intervention in Africa - Somalia, when 18 Americans were killed in one battle and the rest of the force quickly pulled out.

So what does the Nobel peace prize committee think about its 2009 winner now? They wouldn't comment, except to say that no one can appeal against their decisions under Nobel committee rules.

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