International Crises Put Obama in a Bind

American public is hesitant to engage internationally amid economic concerns.

March 15, 2011, 6:18 PM

WASHINGTON, March 16, 2011— -- In the Arab world, calls for the United States to get more engaged are growing louder. But domestically, it seems intervention fatigue is sinking in, as evidenced by record opposition to the war in Afghanistan.

The two forces combined pose a significant challenge for President Obama, who has maintained an active presence on the international front but without directly confronting the uprising.

While it's not the first time a U.S. president has been confronted with the double task of tackling a weak economy at home and turmoil abroad, Obama, from the outset of his presidency, laid out a hope-filled agenda on both fronts.

"I've come here to Cairo to seek a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world, one based on mutual interest and mutual respect," Obama said in his famous speech in Cairo in 2009.

But many in the Arab world feel they are simply seeing more of the same U.S. policy.

In Libya, rebels fighting against the longtime dictatorship of Moammar Gadhafi are clamoring for U.S. help and intervention. In Cairo, young pro-democracy leaders snubbed Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and rejected an invitation to meet with her. In Bahrain, which has been rocked by violent clashes, residents are calling for American help but are suspicious of the United States' close relationship with Saudi Arabia, which sent in troops to fight the opposition.

The White House insists it has acted with haste in all these events, but the Obama administration has yet to take any bold steps. And that doesn't come as a surprise, given how little appetite there is in the country for foreign intervention.

There is broad concern that the U.S. military is overcommitted, and most Americans feel the United States does not have a responsibility to intervene in Libya, where calls for U.S. help have grown louder in recent days, according to a survey by The Pew Research Center for the People & the Press.

In the poll, conducted March 10 through 13, 63 percent say the United States does not have a responsibility to act in Libya, barely half favor increasing economic and diplomatic sanctions against Libya and only 44 percent are in favor of enforcing a no-fly zone.

Even opposition to the war in Afghanistan is at a record high.

Just 31 percent now say the war in Afghanistan has been worth fighting, a new low, 64 percent call it not worth fighting, and 49 percent feel that way "strongly," according to an ABC News/Washington Post poll released Tuesday.

"The broadest observation is that the president's foreign policy cup runneth over with problems," said James M. Lindsay, coauthor of "America Unbound: The Bush Revolution in Foreign Policy" and a former director at the National Security Council. "Americans have lost more than 5,000 soldiers over the last decade. They are not eager for yet another foreign intervention."

The voices on Capitol Hill regarding U.S. intervention have been muted for the most part, reflecting a sense of intervention fatigue.

Only two senators, John McCain, R-Ariz., and Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., have raised their voices in support of imposing a no-fly zone in Libya.

Others are crafting their rhetoric more carefully.

Sen. Richard Lugar, the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said Monday if the administration wants a no-fly zone, then it must get Congress to declare war first.

Lugar, a tea party target in 2012, is facing an extremely tough re-election bid from the right. His distinction is notable at a time when so many politicians are using a return to Constitutional values as their main platform point, and a strict constitutionalist would point to the need for a "declaration of war" before any military conflict.

Lugar is also demanding that the Arab League pay for the costs of a no-fly zone.

The White House hasn't stated whether the president supports a no-fly zone in Libya, only saying he is considering all options.

"We have ... led and coordinated an international response, the likes of which the world has never seen in such a short period of time," White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said Tuesday. "When it comes to considering military options, this president will always be mindful of what the mission -- should it be engaged -- what it entails, the risks that it poses to our men and women in uniform and its likelihood of having the kind of impact that we set out for it to have."

At a time when economy and jobs are at the forefront -- and when only 26 percent of Americans are optimistic about "our system of government and how well it works" -- observers say the president is wise to tread cautiously and see how the situation plays out before taking any bold steps.

"The problem for the president is that very few of the challenges he faces are easily fixed," Lindsay added. "What's happening in the Middle East reflects the tenions in those societies that have been supprressed for several decades. It is well beyond the capacity of this president or another U.S. president to be able to fix the problem."

ABC News' Z. Byron Wolf and Matthew Jaffe contributed to this report.