Obama administration struggles to define American mission in LibyaBy Sam Youngman, John T. Bennett and Russell Berman
March 23, 2011
The Obama administration scrambled to define the U.S. mission in Libya on Tuesday amid congressional criticism that it has not clearly explained its endgame for the war-torn country.
The White House strongly denied that regime change is part of its mission after a statement earlier in the day characterized the goal there as “installing a democratic system.”
Separately, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton struggled to respond to questions from ABC’s Diane Sawyer over whether the U.S. operation would be a success if Col. Moammar Gadhafi remains in power.
Clinton said the United Nations resolution authorizing force against Gadhafi was broad, but included nothing “about getting rid of anybody.”
At the same time, Clinton said it is “highly unlikely” a stable and peaceful Libya can be established with Gadhafi in power. She also said the U.S. mission was intended to give insurgents fighting Gadhafi a “level playing field” and a “much better chance” at toppling the dictator.
Since the U.S.-led operation started on Saturday, lawmakers from across the political spectrum have raised concerns on the grounds that President Obama went to war with undefined goals and, according to some critics, in violation of his constitutional authority.
Strikes against Gadhafi’s compound have raised questions about whether regime change is a part of the multinational mission, as have conflicting statements from different foreign leaders.
The clarification issued Tuesday by Ben Rhodes, a deputy national security adviser, came after a White House-issued readout of a phone call between Obama and
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said that installing a democratic system in Libya was a goal of the two leaders.
In the later statement, Rhodes acknowledged that Obama would like to see a democratic government in Libya, but explaining that the aim of the U.S. military’s intervention there is not to enact regime change.
“We're clarifying, as we’ve said repeatedly, that the effort of our military operation is not regime change, that as we actually say in this readout, it’s the Libyan people who are going to make their determinations about the future,” Rhodes said. “We support their aspirations, their democratic aspirations, and have stated that Gadhafi should go because he’s lost their confidence.”
The earlier statement on the Obama-Erdogan call said the two leaders had reaffirmed their support for implementation of United Nations security resolutions authorizing force in Libya. After noting that this would require a broad-based international effort, the statement said the two leaders “underscored their shared commitment to the goal of helping provide the Libyan people an opportunity to transform their country, by installing a democratic system that respects the people’s will.”
The clarification came as Republicans raised questions about the operation.
Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), the House majority whip, said Obama has not been clear on the goals of the U.S. military mission and that he waited too long to intervene.
“I have a concern: What is the mission? What is the goal?” he said in a local television interview in California.
The chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, Rep. Pete King (R-N.Y.), said he supported the president’s policy but that Obama had “to make clear to the American people and the Congress what his plans are.”
“There are a lot of unanswered questions,” King told The Hill. He said there was a lack of clarity on the mission’s endgame and that Obama had “a very confusing message” on whether the goal was merely to protect civilians or to oust Gadhafi.
“We want Gadhafi out of there, but we’re not using the military to bring that about. It just sends a very confusing message,” King said.
Obama defended the mission in comments in El Salvador on Tuesday, saying it was limited in time and scope and had a well-defined purpose. He also said the operation had already saved lives.
Senior Republican aides added a new line of criticism Tuesday, telling The Hill that several prominent GOP leaders remain unsatisfied with the amount of consultation they have received from the administration — and over the substance of exchanges that have occurred. In some cases, communication between the Pentagon and the House Armed Services Committee consisted of military officials forwarding transcripts of media briefings to the committee staff, an aide said.
A House Republican leadership aide described the consultation from the administration as “insufficient” and said Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) had not heard directly from the president about Libya except for a briefing of congressional leaders on Friday.
White House officials said Denis McDonough, the deputy national security adviser, called Boehner on Saturday before the start of military operations.
House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon (R-Calif.) has been “unsatisfied” with the administration before and during the Libyan operation, said a senior GOP panel aide.
McKeon participated in the Friday briefing via telephone, and received a Saturday telephone call from Michele Flournoy, undersecretary of Defense for policy, a few hours before U.S. and coalition warships and aircraft began bombing Libyan targets.
During the conversation with Flournoy, the aide said McKeon asked several pointed questions. “He said she didn’t have good answers,” the aide said.
McKeon also spoke last week by telephone with the new U.S. Africa Command chief, Gen. Carter Ham, in an introductory phone conversation.
That’s basically been the extent of the official consultation,” the senior aide said, describing those sessions as administration officials “just saying, ‘This is what we’re going to do.’”
Since the onset of the operation, there has been little official back-and-forth between the Armed Services chairman and either the Pentagon or the White House, according to the senior aide.
Committee staff received some information from the Navy about the operation, and the Pentagon “forwarded over the transcripts” from separate media briefings conducted Sunday and Monday by Adm. William Gortney, director of the Joint Staff, and Ham.
A House leader in the president’s own party also criticized the outreach to lawmakers before the start of military operations.
“I am very concerned that the president committed America's military to operations in the region without true consultation with the Congress,” the chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, Rep. John Larson (Conn.), wrote in a CNN.com column.
White House officials have pushed back on charges that they did not adequately consult with Congress before launching military action. “We take very seriously the need to consult with Congress, and we have been doing that, and we would welcome any action they took to show support for this,” press secretary Jay Carney said on Monday night.
Rhodes cited congressional hearings that led to the president’s decision, and he said administration officials have briefed relevant oversight committees in recent weeks.