Roughly two and a half months into the NATO intervention in Libya, members of Congress are still trying to have their say on the matter. Friday afternoon, the House voted 268-145 to pass a resolution introduced by House Speaker John Boehner, which demands President Obama to give more detail on U.S. policy goals in Libya.
Though the administration insists it has consulted with Congress every step of the way, the nonbinding House resolution signals dissatisfaction with the level of communication from the president and the lack of power that Congress has been afforded by the administration on the issue. "This resolution puts the president on notice. He has a chance to get this right. If he doesn't, Congress will exercise its constitutional authority and make it right," Boehner said in a prepared statement. [Vote now: Is Obama handling the Libya crisis the right way?]
According to some members of Congress, the president has acted in defiance of the War Powers Act of 1973. The law gives the president a 60-day window to use military force overseas before requiring congressional authorization. That deadline passed on May 20, but the administration has continued its military operations in the NATO mission regardless, claiming that the U.S. role is now only peripheral.
The House resolution approved Friday affirms that the president has not requested, nor has Congress granted authorization for the U.S. military operations in Libya. It also asserts Congress's role in funding such military involvement. Likewise, echoing a point repeatedly emphasized by the president himself, Boehner's resolution reaffirms a nearly unanimous House vote from last week which forbid the use of ground troops in Libya.
Earlier in the day, White House Deputy Press Secretary Josh Earnest told reporters that the administration has already briefed members of Congress on three separate occasions regarding Libya. "We've been engaged in that consultation all along," he said Friday morning. "That continued consultation demonstrates why these resolutions are unnecessary and unhelpful."
Several House members agree that the president has been clear in his message. "For the Congress to pass a resolution saying they have no earthly idea what the president is doing in Libya simply means they weren't paying attention," said Washington Democratic Rep. Adam Smith before the vote.
However, other members of Congress from both parties have claimed that what the president has said so far is not sufficient. Or as Boehner's resolution put it, the justifications put forth so far are not "compelling" enough to gain authorization.
That another resolution, sponsored by Ohio Democratic Rep. Dennis Kucinich, to put an immediate halt to U.S. operations in Libya failed, with a 148-265 vote, just after the Boehner resolution passed suggests that while the majority of House members are not ready to try to stop the president in his tracks, they do want him to be more forthright.
Boehner and others in Congress and the administration warned that pulling U.S. forces out immediately would send the wrong message to U.S. allies in NATO and also to the oppressive leaders in Libya and elsewhere in the region. "Once military forces are committed, such actions by the Congress can have significant consequences," Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell said at a recent press conference. "It sends an unhelpful message of disunity and uncertainty to our troops, our allies and, most importantly, the Qadhafi regime." [See photos of the unrest in Libya.]
Indeed, although there's been a great deal of support internationally for the NATO operations in Libya, especially at the start of the conflict, that international support could wane if the U.S. Congress is seen as not cooperating. "The coalition that's operating in Libya is a relatively fragile one," says Mark Quarterman, the director of the Program on Crisis, Conflict, and Cooperation at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. "As Libya sinks into a stalemate, it's not entirely clear that the coalition will remain on board as time passes. If there's wavering in the U.S. or a perception that the Obama administration is not receiving the necessary active support from the Congress, it might cause others in the coalition to have their doubts in continuing. The stakes are relatively high here."
According to a diplomat from a NATO member country, U.S. allies have hoped the United States would take a more offensive role. So, while they don't think that Congress asking for more clarification is a bad thing, allies worry about any sort of sign that legislators would want to pull back their current level of involvement. "Anything that looks like a pressure for the United States to reduce its commitment could be harmful to the alliance, based on the idea that the U.S. is a key player," the diplomat says. "Anything that gives the impression that the U.S. could be less committed to the mission in Libya is obviously--in terms of the cohesion of the alliance in Libya--it's not a position that sends the right message." [Check out a roundup of political cartoons on the Middle East uprisings.]
With uncertainty about the persistence of Qadhafi's regime and the strength of its opposition, NATO announced this week that they plan to extend the Libya mission until at least September of this year. After the House's move today, it could rest with them and the Senate to decide if the United States will also keep its cards in until then.