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Libya, Congressional Critics and Lessons Not Learned

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LIBYA JETS

For weeks now President Barack Obama has faced a barrage of criticism from Republicans over his administration's failure to intervene in Libya's ongoing conflict. The GOP's assault accused the president of "weakness", "dithering", and "a lack of leadership". But, coming from the same cast of characters who recklessly led us into Iraq, the attacks could be dismissed as partisan rhetoric.

Then, in what appeared to be a sudden about face, the administration moved quickly to press for a United Nations' Security Council Resolution calling for a "no fly-zone plus" intervention in Libya. Citing "imminent humanitarian concern", a U.S.-led effort launched attacks hitting Libyan air defenses and ground forces that were advancing on rebel-held cities.

As the bombing of Libya began, the president left Washington on a previously scheduled trade mission to several Central and South American countries. After attempting to manage the conflicting messages of the visit and the unfolding events in Libya, the president cut short his trip and returned to face a developing war at home with Congressional critics and political opponents from the right and left troubled by the administration's actions.

Some of the concerns raised by members of Congress are legitimate, others are downright kooky, but all must now be addressed. The issues being raised can generally be categorized as follows:

It's Too Little Too Late.

This is a continuation of the pre-hostilities' partisan attack line against the president. Concerned that the U.S. not militarily engage another Arab country without regional support, Obama rightly waited until the Arab League passed its resolution calling for a "no-fly zone" before going to the United Nations to seek authorization to strike Libya.

When John McCain (R-AZ) complains that Obama "waited too long [regretting] that we didn't act much more quickly", and when Lindsey Graham (R-SC) bristles that "we're taking a backseat rather than a leadership role", both are ignoring post-Iraq realities in the Middle East. And those GOP hawks who have now upped the ante, arguing that unless "we take Gaddafi out" the mission is a failure, are likewise treading on dangerous ground. They may long for the day when America fashioned itself the "cowboy sheriff" or "the white knight on a charger", but what they forget is that during the last decade George W. Bush shot the horse and tarnished the knight's reputation.

Liberal Democrats Are Opposed.

Still chafing over the costs of two failed wars and budget cuts to social programs, there is a brewing revolt in the progressive wing of the Democratic Party. A Congressional group met last week and made clear their concern with beginning a "third Middle East war" echoing Dennis Kucinich's (D-OH) concern that "we have money for endless wars, and can't take care of things at home".

No Congressional Authorization.

As candidate for president, then Senator Obama was quite clear in noting the Constitutional requirement that U.S military engagement be authorized by Congress. In the current situation, the White House has argued that because they notified Congress and because this action is of limited duration the administration does not need specific authorization, an argument that is not gaining traction in Washington. Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-OH) raised this concern last week, observing "[we] are troubled that US military resources were committed to war without clearly defining for... Congress... what the mission is". More ominous for the White House was Minority Whip Steny Hoyer's (D-MD) apparent concurrence saying "I don't think there was a lot of consultation". Pushing both leaders will be their rank-and-file who are more inclined to demand adherence to principles. Tea Party favorite Justin Amash (R-MI) made a strong constitutional case for a Congressional role, while Kucinich asked whether in not seeking Congressional authorization, the president had committed an impeachable offense.

What is the U.S. Vital Interest in Libya?

An additional concern is raised by those who question what U.S. interests are at stake justifying American military involvement. Scott Rigell (R-VA), for example, notes "American lives were not at risk... and Libya was not a material threat to the US", while Candace Miller (R-MI) asks "what's the vital US interest? How much will it cost? How do you define success?"

Critics of the administration have a point when they argue that issues as fundamental as "why we are fighting" and "who we are fighting for" should have been discussed before hostilities began. Because they were not discussed before hostilities, the day after the bombing started they came to the fore. USA Today's cover story, for example, was "Libya's Five Big Questions", while the New York Times prominently ran its own piece raising questions about the "who, what and why" of this conflict.

Outcome Not Clear.

As disturbed as some members of Congress are that they have not been fully consulted or been given the opportunity to authorize the use of force, many are deeply concerned about the lack of clarity about what they perceive as a vagueness about the plan, commitment, and outcome of this military engagement. Senior Republican foreign policy leader, Richard Lugar (R-IN) complained "the plan is simply not there. The objectives, the end game is not apparent", while Democrat, Jim McGovern (D-MA), expressed the concern of many saying "I have this feeling of uneasiness, because of the lack of clarity of this mission".

In the lead up to the Iraq War, I pressed the Democratic Party to pass a resolution opposing the war unless and until then President Bush defined "the costs, consequences, and terms of commitment" entailed. I also cautioned that "we should never consider military engagement in a country whose people, history and culture we do not know". Efforts to stop that war failed and the results, too painful to consider, are still with us. The same questions that should have been answered before we invaded Iraq should also have been asked and answered before hostilities began with Libya. The fact that they were not, and that lessons have not been learned, is deeply troubling.

Dr. James J. Zogby is the author of  Arab Voices: What They Are Saying to Us, and Why it Matters (Palgrave Macmillan, October 2010) and the founder and president of the Arab American Institute (AAI), a Washington, D.C.-based organization which serves as the political and policy research arm of the Arab American community.