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First Thoughts: At war... again

Strikes on Libya begin... Congress puts the squeeze on Obama ... So does the left ... But the action in Libya appears consistent with the "Obama Doctrine" ... Being in Latin America during a war has caused an image problem for the White House ... It has been some kind of news whiplash -- Shutdown, what looming shutdown? Japan, what nuclear crisis? … Barbour staffs up in Florida, Rudy in New Hampshire, Palin in India -- today, she’s in Israel.

From NBC's Chuck Todd, Domenico Montanaro, Ali Weinberg, and Carrie Dann
*** At war... again: Three months ago, ask yourself how you would have answered the following question: “Guess which Arab nation President Obama would be newly launching cruise missiles at before the end of March?" How many countries would you have rattled off before you got to Libya? Point is: There have been some pretty fast moving developments in the Middle East and North Africa in first 80 days of 2011.

*** At war...again, 2: Western allies began air strikes on Khaddafy forces Saturday after the U.N. last week authorized actions by "all necessary means" to protect the Libyan people. French jets bombed tanks, and American war ships fired more than 100 Tomahawk missiles from the Mediterranean in an attempt to disable Libyan air-defense systems. President Obama, in Brazil, reiterated that the United States would not commit ground troops to the effort. This could be a telling week for the direction of the Libyan war, which turned last week in favor of pro-Khaddafy forces. The West hopes its intervention didn't come too late.

*** The latest: As one of your First Read authors noted last night on NBC Nightly News: President Obama was briefed twice yesterday on the progress in Libya. The U.S. believes it's still on track to hand off the mission of enforcing the “no-fly zone” in days not weeks and says it has been consulting Congress for weeks on how one would work. The president also called the king of Jordan to update him on the progress. He did not ask for anything specific in return, but the administration remains optimistic Jordan will participate at some point in the enforcement phase of the "no-fly zone."

*** A diplomatic tap dance: It's a diplomatic tap dance internationally and domestically, especially considering that the Arab League is now criticizing the implementation of the "no-fly zone" -- and the president is catching flak from all sides on the war at home. On the Arab League criticism, which centers on the possibility of civilian deaths, the administration says there have been no confirmed civilian deaths as a result of U.S. bombings, only those claimed by Khaddafy. The U.S. also believes it is not true that they are not following the letter of the U.N. resolution and that there may have been a translation issue regarding the Libyan statement on a cease-fire, which the U.S. says it'll believe when it sees. State Department officials are working overtime, trying to reassuring the Arab League. But it shows that that support is just not that firm.

*** The congressional squeeze: Several members of Congress had some measure of criticism of the president and his administration over the weekend on its handling of Libya: House Speaker Boehner (R-OH) and Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL) (for not truly consulting with Congress and for sending mixed messages); Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and John McCain (R-AZ) (for seeking international approval and acting too late); Sens. Richard Lugar (R-IN) (wondering where the line is on U.S. intervention) and Jack Reed (D-RI) (like Lugar, for not seeking Congressional approval). And even the Council on Foreign Relations said there needs to be clearer objectives on the mission in Libya. Lugar, for one, can't be dismissed, since he worked with Obama closely when he was a senator and is an important voice in the foreign policy community. He made the point on CBS that the U.S. isn't completely sure who the rebels are in Libya, that some may have helped Iraqis against the United States in Iraq, and where does the U.S. draw the line? Does it go to war in Bahrain or Yemen, where their governments are shooting people or even in Syria, where that government is suppressing its people's protests? "Now we had better get this straight from the beginning," Lugar warned, "or there is going to be a situation in which war lingers on country after country, situation after situation, all of them on a humane basis, [with the United States] saving people."

*** And the squeeze from the left: Here was Obama supporter Andrew Sullivan over the weekend: "[T]the president is visiting Brazil! He doesn't have the time to explain to the American people properly the war that he, and he alone, decided on. Why tell the public? Their permission is irrelevant; as is the Congress's. The Washington Times calls the war 'illegal' without a Congressional vote. The only forces on the right that will support Obama will be the neocons. But they will be merciless in attacking the haphazard, zig-zagging way the president has ended up here. It's win-win for them. They can say: Obama is finally taking our advice. But if you want military intervention without 'dithering,' vote for Palin next time." In another post, Sullivan calls the decision by the administration "arrogant, high-handed and undemocratic," a "violation of core campaign promises by Obama," a "folly" that "shows contempt for the American people, and their views, and contempt for the Congress and its role in deliberating before going to war." And: "Who would have thought we'd elect Barack Obama to replicate the worst aspects of an unaccountable executive?" Meanwhile a group of consistently anti-war House Dems are not hiding their anger over this decision.

*** Keeping with the 'Obama Doctrine': But how Obama has dealt with Libya is consistent with the tenets of the "Obama Doctrine" on foreign policy that he laid out in April of 2009 -- multilateralism and standing up for American ideals. Here's what Obama said then, in part: No. 1 "[T]he problems that we confront, whether it's drug cartels, climate change, terrorism, you name it, can't be solved just by one country.” And: "Number two, I think that -- I feel very strongly that when we are at our best, the United States represents a set of universal values and ideals -- the idea of democratic practices, the idea of freedom of speech and religion, the idea of a civil society where people are free to pursue their dreams and not be imposed upon constantly by their government." In pursuing action against Libya, the administration kept with those principles -- it got international support with a U.N. resolution, which the U.S. only sought after it became clear that Khaddafy was going after his own people. Obama stressed in that speech that he believes “there aren't junior partners and senior partners in the international stage.” And highlighting the fundamental difference between Obama and the conservative hawks was this from Sen. Lindsey Graham on FOX: "I'm glad we have international support, but I don't want the model to be that you have to go to the U.N. to deal with tyranny," Graham said. "Those Russians and China are going to be less than friendly to getting rid of dictators, because in many ways, there are countries run by dictators."

*** Image problem: Still, it was striking and a bit odd to receive breaking news alerts and see pictures on television of an active war that the U.S. has significant involvement in -- and the president was in Brazil talking mainly about other issues. And it was unusual to see that it was French President Sarkozy out front to announce the start -- not the American president. "France is resolved to shoulder its role before history," Sarkozy said Saturday. Then again, it's what the White House preferred when dealing with a war in a third Arab nation. Further complicating the public relations problem for the White House -- some front pages in Brazil featured chummy pictures of Obama with Brazilian President Rousseff flanked by dramatic scenes of explosions in Libya (here, here, and here). On this trip, the president went to Brazil to talk trade, economy, and jobs, but once again -- predictably -- the message was stepped on by outside events.

*** The ‘10 percent’ agenda: This is not the first time the Obama administration has struggled to control the message. This has been "The Crisis Presidency" -- from the greatest economic collapse since the Great Depression, bailouts and the stimulus to health care (by the way, Wednesday is the one-year anniversary of President Obama signing the health-care overhaul into law), the BP oil spill, turmoil in the Middle East, and Japan. And, as NBC’s Meet the Press with David Gregory reminded everyone on Sunday, then-Sen. Barack Obama, himself said back in 2006 on Meet the Press with Tim Russert, “Obviously, most of the time it seems that the president has maybe 10 percent of his agenda set by himself and 90 percent of it set by circumstances.” By the way, the longer Libya takes, the more grief Obama will get from the left and right. Sources in the admin still believe the heavy US military component will be done before the end of this coming weekend.

*** News whiplash: Shutdown, what threatened shutdown? And Japan, what nuclear crisis? The past week, for sure, but also just the past 48 hours, have been an amazing news whiplash. It's another reason this White House -- and really any White House -- would have trouble controlling the message.

*** On the trail – weekend wrap: Haley Barbour staffs up in Florida, hiring Sally Bradshaw, who Politico’s Martin calls Jeb Bush’s Karl Rove. … Barbour spoke at California GOP convention, where he said the GOP must focus on the economy and added that the GOP needs a “plainspoken, common-sense, truth-telling” nominee. Who’s that sound like? (Yet despite Barbour’s attendance, Ron Paul won the convention’s presidential straw poll.) … Gingrich says in New Hampshire that Obama’s the “Spectator-In-Chief” and he called Obama’s involvement in Libya “opportunistic amateurism without planning or professionalism” and just a show of “opportunism” and wanting to make a play for “news media publicity.” … Giuliani was in New Hampshire also, and a former staffer says she thinks he’s going to run. … Sarah Palin was in India, where she gave a speech David Frum called “rambling and incoherent,” but her team saw the limited “MSM” coverage as a sign she did well. (It’s not like there was anything else going on in the world this weekend, right?)

*** On the trail today: Palin makes what's becoming a familiar stop for Republican presidential hopefuls -- Israel.

Countdown to continuing resolution’s expiration: 18 days
Countdown to Iowa GOP straw poll: 144 days
Countdown to Election Day 2011: 232 days
Countdown to the Iowa caucuses: 322 days
* Note: When the IA caucuses take place depends on whether other states move up

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