By Arshad Mohammed
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Only 17 percent of Americans see President Barack Obama as a strong and decisive military leader, according to a Reuters/Ipsos poll taken after the United States and its allies began bombing Libya.
Nearly half of those polled view Obama as a cautious and consultative commander-in-chief and more than a third see him as indecisive in military matters.
Obama was widely criticized in 2009 for his months-long consultations with senior aides and military chiefs on whether to send more troops to Afghanistan. Critics called it dithering, but he said such a big decision required careful deliberation. He eventually dispatched 30,000 more troops.
But Obama is facing mounting discontent among opposition Republicans and from within his own Democratic Party over the fuzzy aims of the U.S.-led mission in Libya and the lack of a clearly spelled-out exit strategy for U.S. forces.
If the Libya mission becomes a foreign policy mess, mixed with perceptions Obama is a weak military leader, it could spell trouble for him in the 2012 presidential election.
The poll also found that 60 percent of Americans support the United States and its allies bombing Libya to impose a no-fly zone to protect civilians from Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi's forces.
Seventy-nine percent of those surveyed said the United States and its allies should try to remove Gaddafi, who has ruled the oil-exporting North African country for more than four decades.
In the survey, conducted on March 22 from a nationally representative sample of 975 adults, only 7 percent supported deploying ground troops.
Of the 60 percent in favor of the Libya military action, 20 percent strongly supported it and 40 percent somewhat supported it. Twenty-five percent somewhat opposed it and 14 percent were strongly against.
"NO TOLERANCE" FOR GROUND TROOPS
The survey suggested Americans may see Obama in a very different light from his predecessor, George W. Bush, who launched the Afghanistan and Iraq wars with some allies but was widely seen as a go-it-alone leader.
Of those polled, 48 percent described Obama's leadership as commander in chief as "cautious and consultative," 36 percent as "indecisive and dithering," and 17 percent as "strong and decisive" in a question that offered only those three choices.
"The data suggest he is perceived to be more consultative in his approach, which may distinguish him in the minds of the American public from his predecessor, George W. Bush, who was not perceived to be," said Ipsos Public Affairs Director Julia Clark, adding that the responses broke along political lines.
In a sign of political division, the top Republican in Congress, House of Representatives Speaker John Boehner, on Wednesday sharpened his criticism of Obama, saying he was "troubled that U.S. military resources were committed to war without clearly defining ... what the mission in Libya is and what America's role is in achieving that mission."
Obama secured U.N. Security Council sanctions as well as Arab support before beginning the military operation, whose objective is to protect civilians rather than to oust Gaddafi, the latest authoritarian Arab leader to face mass protests.
Clark said she was surprised by the strong majority -- 79 percent -- favoring removing Gaddafi from power, particularly at a time when the United States is gradually winding down the war in Iraq and still heavily deployed in Afghanistan.
"That's pretty overwhelming," she said, but noted support for the use of U.S. ground troops in Libya is minimal.
"Everybody thinks Gaddafi needs to go but there is absolutely no tolerance for the idea of sending in ground troops," Clark said, citing U.S. fatigue with the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. "The idea of entering a third conflict like that garners very, very little support."
For graphic on the poll click: http://r.reuters.com/xax68r