By Mike Lillis and John T. Bennett - 03/30/11 12:23 AM EDT
President Obama’s prime-time explanation for sending U.S. forces into Libya failed to win over GOP leaders who say they still haven’t heard a clearly defined exit strategy.
Republican leaders in both chambers said Tuesday that they aren’t sure whom the U.S. is trying to help in Libya, how long the military operations will last or what the ultimate objectives are.
As some GOP critics push legislation that would block funding for the Libya intervention, Republican leaders said they’re hoping a series of White House briefings this week will set the record straight.
“All that relates back to defining what success is going to be here,” Cantor added. “There are all kinds of unanswered questions right now.”
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) echoed Cantor, calling Obama’s speech a “step in the right direction” but adding it “didn’t answer every question” on the war.
Asked what questions lingered, McConnell said, “What is the desired outcome?”
GOP leaders have stopped short of endorsing legislation that would defund the military intervention until Congress explicitly authorizes it. Instead, they implied they would reserve their judgment until after this week’s briefings with administration officials.
Congress returned from a 10-day recess this week to find the country embroiled in a military campaign to help Libyan rebels unseat the country’s longtime dictator, Col. Moammar Gadhafi. After roughly a week of leading international forces, the U.S. military on Sunday ceded the mission to NATO.
In his primetime address Monday night, Obama argued that the U.S. had to intervene in Libya to prevent the slaughter of citizens by Gadhafi.
“To brush aside America’s responsibility as a leader and — more profoundly — our responsibilities to our fellow human beings under such circumstances would have been a betrayal of who we are,” Obama said. “And as president, I refused to wait for the images of slaughter and mass graves before taking action.”
House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), who questioned Obama’s Libya strategy in a public letter last week, said Tuesday that Obama’s focus on the humanitarian aspect of the mission would find overwhelming support in Congress.
But Boehner said other questions about the administration’s strategy remain. The Speaker wondered, for instance, how long NATO will stick around to enforce the no-fly zone created to protect Libyan civilians.
“That’s a very troubling question,” Boehner said.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton are among the administration officials scheduled to brief House members on Wednesday. White House officials will also appear Thursday before both the Senate Armed Services and House Foreign Affairs committees. James B. Steinberg, deputy secretary of State, will testify before the House panel. Witnesses have not yet been named for the Senate gathering.
Cantor said he’s hopeful those meetings will help lawmakers “begin to get some clarity” about the ultimate goals of the Libyan offensive. One question the Virginia Republican will be asking is this: Who exactly are the rebel forces the Pentagon has been helping?
“What about the rebels?” Cantor asked. “Who is it that we’re going to see step into the vacuum if it were to be created by Gadhafi’s exiting?”
Critics of the intervention are pushing legislation to pull U.S. forces out of the fray. A bill introduced Tuesday by Reps. Timothy Johnson (R-Ill.) and Justin Amash (R-Mich.) would cut off all funding for the Libya mission until Congress authorizes it.
“Constitutionally, it is indisputable that Congress must be consulted prior to an act of war unless there is an imminent threat against this country,” Johnson said last week in a statement. “The president has not done so.”
Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) is also a co-sponsor of that bill.
Even some Democratic defenders of Obama’s Libya campaign are conceding certain holes in his approach. Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.), while asking a question during a panel hearing Tuesday, acknowledged Washington and NATO have “no exit strategy.” Levin has been a top ally of the administration in the Senate since the start of the campaign.
Hours after Obama’s evening address, Levin described U.S. and coalition goals as “making it possible for the Libyan people to decide Gadhafi’s fate,” just as the Egyptian people drove out former President Hosni Mubarak.
Levin gave Obama high marks for “carefully” laying out the campaign’s goals and parameters.
Levin and Adm. James Stavridis, U.S. European Command chief and NATO allied commander, described a strategy to use military and economic means to place enough pressure on Gadhafi that he will step aside — or be expelled by opposition forces.
During the speech, Obama pledged he would not send ground forces onto Libyan soil to remove Gadhafi.
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), Armed Services Committee ranking member, said Tuesday that he disagrees with Obama’s decision to rule out boots on the ground to oust the embattled Libyan leader.
A senior U.S. military official on Monday said coalition airstrikes had halted the advance of Gadhafi’s forces into Libyan population centers and helped create a stalemate between loyalist and rebel forces.
That explanation was not good enough for the hawkish McCain, who said a standoff is not in Washington’s interests.
Erik Wasson contributed.