By Sam Youngman and John T. Bennett - 03/24/11 10:00 AM EDT
President Obama returned to Washington and a political storm on Wednesday over the military campaign in Libya.
Five days into a mission that started while Obama was out of the country on a trip to Latin America, the criticism of the White House’s handling of the Libyan crisis reached a new peak as military leaders hedged on when the U.S. would transition leadership to its allies.
“I and many other members of the House of Representatives are troubled that U.S. military resources were committed to war without clearly defining for the American people, the Congress and our troops what the mission in Libya is and what America’s role is in achieving that mission,” Boehner wrote.
“In fact, the limited, sometimes contradictory, case made to the American people by members of your administration has left some fundamental questions about our engagement unanswered.”
Boehner’s tough words are expected to foreshadow a week of hearings and scrutiny of the administration’s plans for Libya when Congress resumes next week.
Obama’s return to Washington several days before Congress ends its recess gives the White House an opportunity to retake control of the story of the Libyan campaign.
Obama at times during his presidency has lost ground in political debates while traveling outside the country, but has come back quickly upon returning to the capital. Obama’s schedule includes no public events on Thursday or Friday, but White House officials suggested he could make his case again to the public.
“Without specifically speaking to one speaking appearance, it’s certainly going to be the case that the president will continue to address the situation in Libya in the coming days,” Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes said during a Wednesday briefing on Air Force One as the president flew home.
On his first full day back in Washington, Obama is scheduled to meet with Vice President Biden for lunch before meeting with his national security team in the afternoon to discuss the Libya situation.
The tough criticism from Boehner and other members of Congress left administration officials insisting that they took consultations with Congress seriously, and noting that only a week ago the White House had been criticized for moving too slowly on Libya.
“It’s important to remember that in the run-up to this action, we were criticized somewhat — in fact, fairly frequently — by those who felt like we weren’t moving quickly enough, and now some are criticizing us for not going, for going too quickly,” White House press secretary Jay Carney said during the Wednesday briefing.
The administration hopes to have handed off leadership of the coordinated campaign to its allies before Congress ends its recess next week, but there were signs Wednesday that this could take longer than anticipated.
In the first four days after the onset of the bombing and no-fly zone operation, senior uniformed and civilian Pentagon officials said the U.S. would hand command to an organization led by other nations within a few days.
But by Wednesday, two senior U.S. military officials had dropped the time element when discussing the handover.
“We are in the process of working through a new command-and-control structure” with allied nations, Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Gary Roughead said during a breakfast meeting with reporters in Washington.
The current commander of coalition forces, U.S. Africa Command Army Gen. Carter Ham, said Tuesday that he “would not put a date certain” on the transition.
“It’s not so simple as just having a handshake someplace and say, ‘OK, you're now in charge,’ ” Ham said. “I do not see this being a prolonged situation, but we need that identification of the headquarters, and then we'll begin that process and move on.”
With the transition taking longer than expected, some experts said the administration has created a political problem by emphasizing that the mission would be multinational and not simply led by the U.S.
“I’m a little perplexed at why the administration would place such an emphasis on the transition when it, frankly, didn’t have to,” said Damon Wilson, who worked for former President George W. Bush’s White House and is now with the Atlantic Council.
“I think the administration went down this path purely for political reasons — for the perception that this has a more international face,” Wilson said. “They wanted to show this was done differently than it would have been done by the George W. Bush administration.”
Larry Berman, an expert on the presidency and a political science professor at the University of California-Davis, said the larger worry for the administration should be that European allies will drop off from the mission.
“Right now it’s a NATO-US effort, but the sooner the president articulates an endgame scenario that goes beyond 'no ground troops,' the safer it will be for him politically,” Berman said.