President Obama warned Libya to halt attacks on political protesters Wednesday evening, ending a period of White House silence that had begun to draw criticism.
"We strongly condemn the use of violence in Libya," Obama said." The suffering and bloodshed is outrageous and it is unacceptable. ... This violence must stop."
Obama said he has asked his administration to "prepare the full range of options that we have to respond to this crisis." Those options include sanctions and the creation of a no-fly zone over Libya, according to White House press secretary Jay Carney.
And the president announced that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will travel to the region next week to urge peaceful reforms in Libya, where the embattled Col. Moammar Gadhafi is clinging to power amid calls for his resignation.
Obama's remarks came as criticism was mounting over his lack of response to bloody assaults by Libya's military that have taken an estimated 1,000 lives.
In a Washington Post editorial Wednesday, William Kristol wrote, "This is a time who one looks, necessarily, to the president. So far, one looks in vain."
Some foreign policy experts said the president's understated early response on Libya was understandable.
"He has to be careful because our allies all over the world are watching us," said Matthew A. Crenson, a politics professor at Johns Hopkins University. If the president takes a more hard-line approach to the unrest, "Some of [our allies] may get the idea that if they arouse widespread public controversies that the U.S. is going to back away from them."
Obama traveled to Ohio to discuss business initiatives Tuesday, appearing determined to focus on his domestic agenda.
International policy consultant Graeme Bannerman said the best intentions of presidents to concentrate on national problems can be undone by foreign events.
"Is it one of the biggest challenges any president will ever face? Yes," he said. "Will it completely distract from his domestic agenda? No. But it will make his domestic agenda much more complicated."
But some say the administration isn't doing enough. The wave of protests in the Islamic world that has spread from Tunisia and Egypt to Bahrain, Libya, Yemen and beyond, is an historic moment that demands America's involvement, some critics maintain.
"The U.S. policy towards Libya is nonexistent," said Ilan Berman, vice president of the nonprofit American Foreign Policy Council. "I have yet to hear anybody articulate what U.S. national security interests are in Libya, what the American stake is. Now we are retroactively scrambling to try and strike the proper note."
He said the protests are opening political vacuums in pockets across the Middle East that are ripe for exploitation by al Qaeda and other terrorist groups.
"It's pretty apparent that the White House is being driven by events rather than driving them," Berman said. Under that approach, "There is no end in sight for this wave [of protests]. The administration is really at a loss."