CBS Wonders if U.S. 'Transfer of Power' in Libya Has 'Brushed Back' Criticism of Obama

On Friday's CBS Early Show, the network did its first full segment on criticism of the Obama administration's Libya policy, with co-host Chris Wragge declaring: "As the transfer of power gets set to happen, President Obama finds himself on the hot seat over his handling of the crisis." However, the segment that followed featured no input from the President's critics.

A report by White House correspondent Chip Reid described the supposed "control shift" of military operations in the North African nation from U.S. to NATO forces but did not address significant congressional criticism. Following that report, Wragge spoke with political analyst John Dickerson about the criticism of Obama, but started the discussion by wondering if such criticism would start to diminish: "...the President's been getting a lot of criticism from both sides of the aisle from not consulting more with Congress on this, really kind of waiting for this handover to NATO right now. Does that criticism now get brushed back a little with this handover?"

Dickerson argued: "To the extent the President can now say, 'Look, the handover is happening,' that does allow him to push back. He can say, 'Look, we saw a humanitarian crisis, a massacre about to happen here.' Our role was to just kind of kick down the door and then let the others do the job, and that's what appears to be happening."

The rest of Wragge's questions had a healthy dose of skepticism of the administration, but he seemed to suggest that the problem for the White House was mostly a matter of PR: "...there has been tremendous criticism about from the fact that the U.S. didn't act quickly enough. Some said that acting without Congress' full approval was a big problem. What do we think about the message and how the White House is conveying or has conveyed their message?"

Dickerson replied with administration talking points: "Well, the White House wanted it to look like it was not taking the lead role here, and that this was not another American intervention into this region. And so it wanted to stay a little bit in the background."

Wragge followed up: "...typically when the U.S. gets involved in military operations like this, there's a prime-time address....there's been quite a bit of criticism that the goals of this plan have not been clearly laid out." Dickerson reiterated the strained logic of the White House: "Well, part of the problem here is again, this trying to stay in the background and let others take the lead. And with that being the case, that prime-time address or canceling the President's trip would have really hung a lamp on this and made it look like this is a U.S. operation."

So the President didn't want to fully explain a U.S. military operation in order to prevent it from looking like a U.S. military operation.

In his final question to Dickerson, Wragge wondered: "What do you make of the fact that Secretary Clinton made the announcement of the handover to NATO as opposed to the commander in chief last night?" Dickerson kept up his defense of the President: "Well, White House officials say that this was really just the – sort of the announcement before the announcement....They want to let the details get worked out, then it will be time for the President to speak. But they said we should be hearing from the President soon."

On Thursday's Early Show, Wragge offered a six-second tease about members of Congress criticizing Obama on Libya, but strangely, a story on that topic was nowhere to be found in the rest of the March 24 broadcast.

Here is a full transcript of the March 25 segment:

7:00AM TEASE:

CHRIS WRAGGE: Handing over control. The U.S. confirms it will take a back seat to NATO in enforcing the no-fly zone over Libya, as air strikes continue on Moammar Gadhafi and his forces. But as the transfer of power gets set to happen, President Obama finds himself on the hot seat over his handling of the crisis.

7:06AM SEGMENT:

WRAGGE: Now to the latest on the battle for Libya. In a major shift, NATO will take the lead role in enforcing the no-fly zone, according to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. The latest air attacks overnight struck Qadhafi's forces outside the rebel-held city of Ajdabiya. While in Tripoli, the ruling government held a mass burial of what it called civilian victims of western air strikes. And representatives from the rebels and the Qadhafi regime are due to attend an Arab League meeting today on the Libyan crisis. Let's begin our coverage this morning with CBS News chief White House correspondent Chip Reid. Chip, good morning.

CHIP REID: Well, Good morning, Chris. Secretary of State Clinton made the announcement about the no-fly zone last night after a week of tough negotiations with NATO allies.

HILLARY CLINTON: We have agreed, along with our NATO allies, to transition command and control for the no-fly zone over Libya to NATO.

[ON-SCREEN HEADLINE: Battle for Libya; Mission Control Shifting to NATO]

REID: Now the problem here is that enforcing the a no-fly zone is the easier half of the military operation. The harder part is protecting civilians, and that involves bombing Moammar Qadhafi's tanks and other ground forces, and that, for now, is still under the control of the United States.

U.S. officials had hoped last night that NATO would vote to turn the entire operation over to NATO, but they did not. Hillary Clinton hopes to nail that down when she goes to London next week to negotiate, again with NATO allies, but I tell you, even after control is turned over to NATO, U.S. pilots will still be deeply involved, flying everything from surveillance missions to combat missions. Chris.

WRAGGE: CBS's Chip Reid at the White House for us this morning. Chip, thank you. Also in Washington this morning is CBS News political analyst John Dickerson. John, good morning.

JOHN DICKERSON: Good morning, Chris.

WRAGGE: Alright, so the President's been getting a lot of criticism from both sides of the aisle from not consulting more with Congress on this, really kind of waiting for this handover to NATO right now. Does that criticism now get brushed back a little with this handover?

DICKERSON: Well, members of both parties in Congress like to be brought in on these decisions. So part of this is just they're angry they've been left out in the cold. But also, it was this idea that this was an open-ended, unclear mission. To the extent the President can now say, 'Look, the handover is happening,' that does allow him to push back. He can say, 'Look, we saw a humanitarian crisis, a massacre about to happen here.' Our role was to just kind of kick down the door and then let the others do the job, and that's what appears to be happening.

[ON-SCREEN HEADLINE: Obama on the Hot Seat; President Facing Scrutiny Over Libya]

WRAGGE: What's going to be the reaction today, though? Because as we heard in Chip's piece a second ago, it sounds as though there will be a handover – it's not a total handover, there's still going to be plenty of U.S. involvement here.

DICKERSON: And that's a problem for the White House. If it looks like they're trying to spin this and make it look like a discreet, clean operation, now the U.S. can sort of step to the background, if that conflicts with reality or what the other allies involved in this say, then it becomes another problem where the White House doesn't seem to be having a clear message for the public.

WRAGGE: Let me ask you about just that, the message. Because that is something that there has been tremendous criticism about from the fact that the U.S. didn't act quickly enough. Some said that acting without Congress' full approval was a big problem. What do we think about the message and how the White House is conveying or has conveyed their message?

DICKERSON: Well, the White House wanted it to look like it was not taking the lead role here, and that this was not another American intervention into this region. And so it wanted to stay a little bit in the background. Of course, that's a problem when it's U.S. missiles that are doing the door knocking down phase of this. But – so that added to the problem here, which was that the communication wasn't very clear.

There are two goals. There was an existing U.S. strategy, which was to try and pressure Qadhafi to get out, to leave office. That was a non-military strategy. Then they inserted this second goal, which was an emergency military strategy to deal with a potential massacre. They now want to say, 'Okay, that's over, we're going to go back to this previous strategy, non-military.' We'll just see if that's even possible.

WRAGGE: Your thoughts on how they did handle – typically when the U.S. gets involved in military operations like this, there's a prime-time address. Now granted, the President was on a foreign trip at the time, but there's been quite a bit of criticism that the goals of this plan have not been clearly laid out. Your thoughts on that.

DICKERSON: Well, part of the problem here is again, this trying to stay in the background and let others take the lead. And with that being the case, that prime-time address or canceling the President's trip would have really hung a lamp on this and made it look like this is a U.S. operation. And so, in order not to do that, it's caused a situation in which the goals have seemed unclear. Also, this was quite fast moving. We had the President talking about trying to pressure Qadhafi out, and then all of a sudden, there was military action taking place. The speed of all of that is also what's contributed to the message problem here.

WRAGGE: Final question before we let you go. What do you make of the fact that Secretary Clinton made the announcement of the handover to NATO as opposed to the commander in chief last night?

DICKERSON: Well, White House officials say that this was really just the – sort of the announcement before the announcement. They're trying to push this idea that, 'Look, the first phase is over. The U.S. is going to go in to a supportive role now,' and they wanted to get that message out as fast as possible. But, as Chip mentioned in his piece, all the details are not worked out. They want to let the details get worked out, then it will be time for the President to speak. But they said we should be hearing from the President soon.

WRAGGE: Alright. John Dickerson for us in Washington this morning. John, thanks. Good talking with you, as always.

DICKERSON: Thanks, Chris.

— Kyle Drennen is a news analyst at the Media Research Center. You can follow him on Twitter here.

Kyle Drennen
Kyle Drennen
Kyle Drennen is a News Analyst for MRC