President Barack Obama faces a new line of attack from congressional Republicans, who argue the White House has failed to articulate the goals of the US military engagement in Libya.

While lawmakers from both leading US political parties expressed support for the need to stop Colonel Muammer Gaddafi’s forces, Republicans criticised Mr Obama for not being specific enough about the mission’s objectives.

John Boehner, the speaker of the House of Representatives, said: “The administration has a responsibility to define for the American people, the Congress and our troops what the mission in Libya is, better explain what America’s role is in achieving that mission, and make clear how it will be accomplished.”

Howard “Buck” McKeon, chairman of the House armed services committee, went even further. “Are our goals aimed at protecting civilians in Libya or the removal of Col Gaddafi from power? In either case, to what extent and for how long will military resources be utilised?” Mr McKeon asked. “I am concerned that the use of military force in the absence of clear political objectives for our country risks entrenching the US in a humanitarian mission whose scope and duration are not known at this point and cannot be controlled by us,” he added.

This line of attack marked a shift from the most frequent Republican worries about Mr Obama’s stance on Libya in recent weeks, which is that the White House recognised the need for a no-fly zone too slowly. “He waited too long, there is no doubt about it in my mind,” John McCain, the Arizona senator and former presidential candidate, told CNN. “But now, it is what it is. And we need, now, to support him and the efforts that our military are going to make.”

Carl Levin, the Democratic chairman of the Senate armed services committee, was satisfied that the US would not suffer from “mission creep” – or be drawn into a third protracted conflict in the Middle East after Iraq and Afghanistan. “One of the reasons I predict that there will be strong bipartisan support in the Congress for the president’s decision is because it is a limited mission, no boots on the ground, and because he has done this with great caution, with great care,” Mr Levin said.

The critiques from some top US lawmakers marked a contrast with the political reactions in France, which led the push for a no-fly zone and where the consensus behind the military engagement with Libya has been almost universal, not seen since Jacques Chirac took an uncompromising stand against the US invasion of Iraq in 2003.

“Let us savour this moment when France changed history,” said Olivier Jay, editor of the Journal du Dimanche in Sunday’s edition.

“In this instance, France has lived up to its ideals,” said Dominique de Villepin, a vocal critic of the French president and who as foreign minister delivered an impassioned plea against military intervention in Iraq to the UN.

Even the left has struggled to find something to criticise. Benoît Hamon, Socialist party spokesman, said: “It is a serious decision that had to be taken.”

Remarkably, few mention the fact that it was a recently elected Mr Sarkozy who in 2007 became the first western leader in decades to welcome Col Gaddafi for an official state visit.

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