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Inside the White House-Congress meeting on Libya

President Barack Obama hosted 18 senior lawmakers at the White House on Friday afternoon to "consult" with them about the new plan to intervene in Libya, exactly 90 minutes before Obama announced that plan to the world and one day after his administration successfully pushed for authorization of military force at the United Nations. Sen. ...

Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images
Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images

President Barack Obama hosted 18 senior lawmakers at the White House on Friday afternoon to "consult" with them about the new plan to intervene in Libya, exactly 90 minutes before Obama announced that plan to the world and one day after his administration successfully pushed for authorization of military force at the United Nations.

Sen. Richard Lugar (R-IN) complained on Thursday that the administration had not properly consulted Congress before deciding to support military intervention in Libya, and called for a formal declaration of war by Congress before military action is taken. Inside the White House meeting, several lawmakers had questions about the mission but only Lugar outwardly expressed clear opposition to the intervention, one lawmaker inside the meeting told The Cable.

The other lawmakers in attendance were Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV), House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-MD), Sen. Carl Levin (D-MI), Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-TX), Rep. Mike Rogers (R-MI), Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger (D-MD), Speaker John Boehner (R-OH), Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA), Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL), Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), Sen. Jon Kyl (R-AZ), Sen. John Kerry (D-MA), Sen. Diane Feinstein (D-CA), Rep. Buck McKeon (R-NY), Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), and Rep. Howard Berman (D-CA).

President Barack Obama hosted 18 senior lawmakers at the White House on Friday afternoon to "consult" with them about the new plan to intervene in Libya, exactly 90 minutes before Obama announced that plan to the world and one day after his administration successfully pushed for authorization of military force at the United Nations.

Sen. Richard Lugar (R-IN) complained on Thursday that the administration had not properly consulted Congress before deciding to support military intervention in Libya, and called for a formal declaration of war by Congress before military action is taken. Inside the White House meeting, several lawmakers had questions about the mission but only Lugar outwardly expressed clear opposition to the intervention, one lawmaker inside the meeting told The Cable.

The other lawmakers in attendance were Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV), House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-MD), Sen. Carl Levin (D-MI), Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-TX), Rep. Mike Rogers (R-MI), Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger (D-MD), Speaker John Boehner (R-OH), Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA), Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL), Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), Sen. Jon Kyl (R-AZ), Sen. John Kerry (D-MA), Sen. Diane Feinstein (D-CA), Rep. Buck McKeon (R-NY), Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), and Rep. Howard Berman (D-CA).

Deputy National Security Advisor Denis McDonough held a conference call with top Congressional staffers on Friday afternoon where he emphasized Obama’s "deep respect for Congress in all of these matters," and gave a read out of the White House meeting. A recording of the call was provided to The Cable.

"The president expects the preponderance of our involvement to last a matter of days, not weeks," McDonough said.

"At the front end of this effort, the United States will contribute our unique capabilities to neutralize air defenses and military equipment that threatens civilians and civilian-populated areas to enable ongoing enforcement operations led by our partners," he said. "We will then enable and support other countries to enforce the no-fly zone…with us in a support role…. It will not be an open ended effort by the United States."

Responding to questions from the staffers, McDonough rejected Libyan Foreign Minister Musa Kusa’s claim that all military operations had been halted. McDonough said that all indications are that government attacks on civilians continue and "we have no evidence to support the assertion from the foreign minister that there’s a ceasefire."

NATO, which is organizing command and control of the no-fly zone, enforcement of the arms embargo, and humanitarian assistance operations, could finished their planning as early as today, McDonough said. He also confirmed that in addition to the no-fly zone and the "no-drive zone," planning is ongoing for a "no-sail zone," which would allow greater enforcement of the arms embargo authorized by the new U.N. resolution.

In an exclusive interview with The Cable, Berman, the top Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said Obama emphasized in the meeting that the United States would not shoulder the lion’s share of responsibility for conducting and resourcing the mission.

"While the U.S. will provide support and leadership in terms of implementing capabilities which it’s uniquely able to provide, the general operation is going to be much more Arab and European led," Berman said, adding that he called into the meeting from Los Angeles.

Berman praised the administration’s action, but noted that the current plan is limited to protecting civilians and does not allow international forces to actively overthrow the Libyan government.

"There is now an international consensus that Qaddafi must go, but what does not yet exist is an international consensus on how to get Qaddafi to leave power," he said.

He said the administration is involved in a "tremendous amount of vetting" of Libyan opposition figures as it attempts to figure out which ones are safe to work with, and perhaps even provide with weapons. The White House also told lawmakers that the latest resolution eliminates confusion by more clearly allowing the arming of the opposition, Berman said.

Rogers, the chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, also told The Cable in an exclusive interview on Friday that the White House clearly emphasized the U.S. role would be limited.

"We are going to play a very supportive role. France and Great Britain and others are going to lead the way along with our Arab League allies; there may be four or five Arab countries participating," he said.

Rogers said that the administration had been in contact with lawmakers and had kept him up to date, but the communications had been mostly one way.

"I wouldn’t call it consultation as much as laying it out," he said.

Josh Rogin covers national security and foreign policy and writes the daily Web column The Cable. His column appears bi-weekly in the print edition of The Washington Post. He can be reached for comments or tips at josh.rogin@foreignpolicy.com.

Previously, Josh covered defense and foreign policy as a staff writer for Congressional Quarterly, writing extensively on Iraq, Afghanistan, Guantánamo Bay, U.S.-Asia relations, defense budgeting and appropriations, and the defense lobbying and contracting industries. Prior to that, he covered military modernization, cyber warfare, space, and missile defense for Federal Computer Week Magazine. He has also served as Pentagon Staff Reporter for the Asahi Shimbun, Japan's leading daily newspaper, in its Washington, D.C., bureau, where he reported on U.S.-Japan relations, Chinese military modernization, the North Korean nuclear crisis, and more.

A graduate of George Washington University's Elliott School of International Affairs, Josh lived in Yokohama, Japan, and studied at Tokyo's Sophia University. He speaks conversational Japanese and has reported from the region. He has also worked at the House International Relations Committee, the Embassy of Japan, and the Brookings Institution.

Josh's reporting has been featured on CNN, MSNBC, C-Span, CBS, ABC, NPR, WTOP, and several other outlets. He was a 2008-2009 National Press Foundation's Paul Miller Washington Reporting Fellow, 2009 military reporting fellow with the Knight Center for Specialized Journalism and the 2011 recipient of the InterAction Award for Excellence in International Reporting. He hails from Philadelphia and lives in Washington, D.C. Twitter: @joshrogin

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