How an exhausted White House lost Congress on Libya

How an exhausted White House lost Congress on Libya

The House of Representatives, in a culmination of over three months of Congressional frustration with the Obama administration’s handling of the Libya intervention, voted against authorizing the war 123-295 and is set to vote for cutting off most of the funding for the mission.

The resolution to authorize the President Obama’s intervention in Libya, sponsored by Rep. Alcee Hastings (D-FL), garnered only 8 GOP votes.

But all of this could have been avoided if overworked top Obama administration officials had not been too physically exhausted to pay a little more attention to Capitol Hill, according to the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee.

"It’s crazy that we’re fighting over this the way we are," Rep. Buck McKeon (R-CA) said in a roundtable with reporters just now.

The scene here at the Capitol on this sunny, summer Friday morning is surreal, as the three-hour debate continues. Lawmakers, who must still vote a resolution to cut off all funds for the war sponsored by Rep. Tom Rooney (R-FL), are continuously unleashing statements on why the Libya war represents a threat to the Constitution, a plundering of the Treasury, or an overreach of U.S. power.

The arguments against the war are all over the map. Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-NY) actually said the votes were the best way to prevent a decades-long slide into "monarchy." Rep. Ron Paul (R-TX) launched into a diatribe about the abuse of wartime contractors.

Democrats like Howard Berman (D-CA) and Jim McDermott (D-WA) tried to defend the president’s policy by making the humanitarian argument and focusing on the limited nature of U.S. involvement. But they were shouted down by the war’s opponents, many even from within their own party. "What, we don’t have enough wars going on?" said Dennis Kucinich (D-OH), sarcastically.

To be clear, the votes today won’t actually force President Barack Obama to terminate the U.S. military intervention in Libya. But though the votes are largely symbolic, that doesn’t mean they aren’t hugely important. The Obama administration realizes the negative impact of a rebuke by the House, and is even resorting to rhetoric that implies the GOP might actually be helping Col. Muammar al-Qaddafi.

"Who’s side are you on?" Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said earlier this week, showing her deep frustration with Congressional opposition to the Libya war.

McKeon said this was exactly the kind of unhelpful statement that showed the administration’s lack of respect for Congress and its fumbling of the politics of the Libya war.

"She is one of the ones that caused us to be where we are," McKeon shot back, in response to a question from The Cable.

So how did we get here? On March 17 — the same day that Obama was pursuing the authorization for war at the United Nations and two days after he decided he wanted to attack Libya — the president had a 90-minute lunch with House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) but never mentioned Libya once, McKeon said. McKeon left Washington that night, only to receive a phone call 10 a.m. Friday morning, saying, "The president wants you in the White House in an hour for a meeting."

"It’s like at the last minute somebody thought ‘here’s something we should check off, talk to the Congress,’" McKeon said.

When Clinton and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates eventually did come to Capitol Hill to brief Congress a week later, someone asked Clinton directly to address the issue of Congressional authorization and the War Powers Resolution.

"[Clinton] said, paraphrase, ‘It doesn’t matter what you think, we’re doing what we’re doing.’" McKeon said. "I heard from a lot of people on both sides of the aisle that that really bothered them."

"Somebody else told me Secretary Clinton was living on about 3 or 4 hours sleep a night. So I just gave her the benefit of the doubt on that, I figured she was just tired and stressed when she made that comment," McKeon added.

McKeon then asked Gates to brief his committee for 3 hours, but Gates negotiated down the amount of time, telling McKeon, "I am exhausted… just physically," McKeon said.

Communication with Congress did not improve from then on, leaving lawmakers to come up with their own views on the war, McKeon said.

"There are a lot of people in the conference that feel the president has violated the constitution. And yet, some of those same people, they’re not opposed to the mission in Libya," McKeon said." They think if he had met with Congress or in some way done a better job of setting up what he was going to do, they would feel much more comfortable and we wouldn’t even be at the point where we are at."

McKeon is the quintessential GOP defense hawk in Congress. He is for steadily increasing defense budgets. He thinks Obama made a mistake by announcing the drawdown of troops in Afghanistan. He is concerned that the GOP is risking its credibility on national security.

"Conservative Republicans have a three legged stool: defense, fiscal responsibility, and social issues. Right now the stool is out of balance because fiscal matters are dominating everything," he said.

But when it comes to Libya, even he just doesn’t see the logic of the endeavor.

"Why aren’t we in Syria, why aren’t we in Yemen," McKeon said.  [Obama’s] argument, you could drive a tank through it. It doesn’t make sense."

He doesn’t believe President Obama’s contention that the United States has taken itself out of the lead role in Libya. And he doesn’t buy that a NATO-led mission that’s dependent on the U.S. military is much different than any other international mission where the U.S. military is involved.

"The President is in a box because he’s getting hit from the left as far as anything he does with the military, so he used [NATO] as cover," McKeon said. "NATO is us. So I think that was just a thing the president kind of used to say ‘hey it’s not us.’ They can’t do it without us."

McKeon believes that the Libya war is currently in a stalemate, hindered by a mission plan that is meant to protect Libyan civilians, but does not permit the targeting of the despot who is killing those civilians.

So what does McKeon think we should do now? Kill Qaddafi. "We should get him, whatever it takes."

Does that include ground troops, we asked? "No."