WASHINGTON -- In the first two years of his presidency, Barack Obama replaced Teddy Roosevelt's well-advised admonition to "speak softly and carry a big stick" with "be friendly and carry an olive branch."
He planned on sitting down and entering into a "gentlemen's dialogue" with America's enemies, including every tin-pot despot from Iran to North Korea. He was going to try to reason with the world's dictators who are, by definition, well, unreasonable.
Now, in the third year of his troubled term in office, as he enters a tough, two-year presidential election cycle with his polls sinking into the mid-40s, and critics on both sides of the aisle saying he is failing to lead, Obama is suddenly firing Tomahawk missiles and sending stealth bombers into Libya to topple its dictator Moammar Gaddafi from power.
When advisers told Franklin Roosevelt he was not being taken seriously enough by Congress, he asked his aides to "find me a bill I can veto," which he promptly did. Congress got the message.
In an analysis on the front page of Sunday's Washington Post's Outlook section, Obama was unceremoniously portrayed as the "master of ceremonies" who "appears less inclined or less able to assert his country -- or himself -- as the dominant player in global affairs."
By that time, the U.S. air strikes over North Africa had already begun. But it wasn't long before Obama's attempt at regime change in Libya (let's face it, that's what he's attempting here) was turning out to be a lot more difficult than our reluctant commander-in-chief expected.
Obviously, the missile aimed at Gaddafi's compound where he lived wasn't intended to kill Libyan bureaucrats. He wasn't there.
By Tuesday, Gaddafi, who threatened to bathe his country in blood to stay to power, was still shelling the ragtag, poorly armed and unequipped rebels that Obama wanted to save.
From the beginning, his handling of the air war against the Libyan dictator's forces was strange, raising more questions than the White House had answers. While he was sending U.S. ship and air forces into harm's way, he was off on a pleasant tour of Latin America with his family, a series of photo ops and one banquet after another. The U.S. commander of chief had left his country while the war raged.
At a news conference Monday in Chile, he argued that this was not an attempt at regime change, but a humanitarian effort to save civilian and rebel lives from Gaddafi's threat to annihilate anyone who threatened his rule.
While Gaddafi troops were still shooting rebels and civilians in a reign of terror in Benghazi, Ajdabiya and elsewhere, Obama announced that U.S. military action would soon be handed off to the U.S. allies in "a matter of days, not weeks."
Certainly not a reassuring message to the disparate, disorganized groups of rebels who heard that the U.S. mission they had counted on to save them would be going home, and turning the fight over to the French. That fight won't be over anytime soon, either. The headline over a lengthy Associated Press dispatch Tuesday from Ajdabiya: "Gaddafi's Forces, Libyan Rebels Face Standoff."
The White House said the "hand off," if it ever comes, would go to NATO forces. But opposition from some member countries, including Turkey and Germany, made significant NATO action questionable at best.
Meantime, criticism of Obama's military adventure is growing here at home. Congress was in recess for 10 days, but a number of Democrats voiced angry complaints in a hastily arranged House Democratic Caucus conference call as the bombing began. Many said Obama had "exceeded his constitutional authority" by undertaking the attack before obtaining Congress' approval.
Republican senators made the same complaint, including Richard Lugar of Indiana and Rand Paul of Kentucky. House Speaker John Boehner said the president needed to more fully explain the mission and its objectives to Congress and the American people.
But Obama's strained argument -- that he had not really entered into a war, but was trying to prevent "a humanitarian disaster" -- was embarrassingly thin, if not dishonest. War by its very definition can be a humanitarian action, but bombing a country's army is clearly an act of war. Why does Obama deny that? America is now engaged in four wars: Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and now Libya, under an inexperienced president who ran for office criticizing the previous president's "rush to war." A Rasmussen poll earlier this month showed that 63 percent of Americans surveyed wanted the U.S. to stay out of Libya.
But the field of battle that Obama chose to enter is clearly a civil war seeking to topple a despotic ruler that President Reagan once called the "mad dog of the Middle East." Fighting Taliban or al Qaeda terrorists in Afghanistan is tough enough, but getting into lengthy civil wars that are now sweeping throughout the Middle East is a huge leap into disaster. Let them fight their own wars.
Obama faces a lot of troubling questions about his unexplained actions in Libya, questions that could pester him throughout the 2012 election. Let's see how he argues his way out of this one.