U.S. Lawmakers Get Chance to Air Concerns on Obama Libya Policy

U.S. President Barack Obama
U.S. President Barack Obama. Photographer: Dennis Brack/Pool via Bloomberg

U.S. lawmakers are set to question top Obama administration officials tomorrow about the military operation in Libya at secret Capitol Hill briefings occurring amid bipartisan concerns about the mission.

President Barack Obama’s nationally televised defense last night of his decision to use U.S. force in Libya failed to allay qualms Republican and Democratic lawmakers have raised about the operation, including its costs, goals and time frame. The strongest critics are threatening to try to end the mission by blocking its funding or compelling Obama to request congressional approval for continuing it.

“I’ve told my caucus, ‘Come loaded with all your questions; ask questions in this classified setting,’” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, told reporters today. “‘And then if, in fact, you want to do more legislatively, you’re entitled to do that.’”

Reid said he read Democrats parts of the War Powers Act -- which curbs the president’s power to send U.S. troops into combat zones for more than 60 days without congressional approval -- at the party’s closed-door weekly luncheon today. The measure provides for fast-track consideration of a congressional resolution directing the president to pull U.S. forces out of foreign hostilities unless he has formally declared war or otherwise gotten legislative approval for military action.

Clinton to Brief

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Admiral Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, are to lead the classified House and Senate briefings.

Republicans who favored strong U.S. intervention, antiwar Democrats and some in between said Obama’s speech left them confused about what it would take to bring an end to U.S. involvement in Libya.

Senator John McCain of Arizona, the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee and his party’s 2008 presidential nominee, said Obama “made a strong defense of our military operation in Libya,” yet failed to articulate a strategy for ousting Muammar Qaddafi, leaving open the possibility of a “prolonged and bloody stalemate” in Libya.

‘Not Neutral’

“Ultimately, we need to be straight with the American people and with ourselves. We are not neutral in the conflict in Libya. We want the opposition to succeed and we want Qaddafi to leave power,” McCain said in a speech in the Senate today. “We must therefore provide the necessary and appropriate assistance to aid the opposition in their fight.”

Obama said in his address that the U.S. and its allies faced a choice between taking military action in Libya or letting Qaddafi massacre civilians. While he said he wanted Qaddafi out, Obama said it would be a “mistake” to remove him by force. He spoke a day after the North Atlantic Treaty Organization agreed to take full control of the campaign.

House Speaker John Boehner said he was puzzled by Obama’s assertion that he hopes Qaddafi leaves.

“The fact the plan appears to be a humanitarian mission to stop a slaughter of innocent people in Libya, I think, is something ultimately the Congress would support,” the Ohio Republican told reporters. Still, he said, “if Qaddafi doesn’t leave, how long will NATO be there to enforce a no-fly zone? That is a very troubling question.”

No ‘Defined Endgame’

Senator Richard Lugar of Indiana, the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said the immediate threat Obama referenced “has been neutralized,” raising the possibility that U.S. involvement “may continue indefinitely, without a defined endgame.”

Obama “still has not clearly stated what our goals are or what would constitute success. He has not stated whether the United States would accept a stalemate in the civil war, nor has he put forward a plan for ending Qaddafi’s rule,” Lugar said in a statement.

Lugar has been pressing for Obama to come to Congress for authorization for action in Libya.

Some lawmakers who support Obama’s approach to the conflict are quietly weighing trying to engineer a congressional vote of confidence for it. Democratic Senator Carl Levin of Michigan, the chairman of the Armed Services Committee, said he might draft a resolution authorizing military action in support of the objective Obama laid out: a United Nations-mandated, NATO-led mission to protect Libyan civilians.

A Dangerous Path

Democratic Representative Dennis Kucinich of Ohio, a war critic who is seeking to eliminate funds for the Libya operation, said Obama was taking the nation down a dangerous foreign policy road.

“The president enunciated a new Obama doctrine” that includes “war based on threats,” Kucinich said in an interview. “It’s a doctrine for preemptive war, and this is a dangerous standard -- it’s what took us into Iraq.”

Kucinich circulated a letter to other U.S. lawmakers today requesting their backing for his effort to cut off money for the Libya operation and force Obama to come to Congress for approval. His letter faulted the president for the “stark lack of information provided to Congress and the American people about the war.”

Some Democratic leaders on Capitol Hill said Obama laid out a compelling case for intervention.

‘Humanitarian Crisis’

“Action was taken to stave off a humanitarian crisis saving thousands of lives,” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, a California Democrat, said in a statement. “I commend the president for his courage in taking this action and salute our men and women in uniform for their part in saving lives.” Representative Adam Smith of Washington, the top Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, said Obama’s critics are trying to have it both ways. “Many who urged the administration to act are now criticizing the administration for its actions,” he said.

While Obama’s team “could have done a better job of working with Congress in the days prior to taking action, it is clear that U.S. leadership prevented this humanitarian crisis from getting worse and saved thousands of lives,” Smith said. “As a nation, that is something we should be proud of.”

Critics said Obama overstepped his constitutional bounds and ignored foreign policy concerns such as whether Libyan rebels had ties to al-Qaeda and who might succeed Qaddafi.

Republican Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky said in a statement that while Obama raised the question of what would happen if the U.S. did nothing, “a better question might be, ‘What if helping Libya’s interest actually hurts America’s interests?’”

Paul said Congress will soon “force President Obama to confront these questions.”

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