Lawmakers scold administration for 'tepid' action in Mali

Members of both parties on Thursday slammed the Obama administration for its “tepid” support of the French military intervention to rout Islamist militants in northern Mali.

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“It doesn't help that the administration has been divided,” House Foreign Affairs Committee chairman Ed Royce (R-Calif.) said at a hearing on the U.S. role in the west African nation. 

“According to a former senior Obama Administration official, U.S. policy toward the region has been hindered by divisions between a Defense Department that wanted to confront the threat – and a cautious State Department that sought to contain it.”

Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), the top Democrat on the panel, expressed dismay that the administration initially sought to have France reimburse the United States for its support.

“I was disturbed by early reports that we were planning to charge Paris for providing airlift,” he said. “If we can find a way to pay for military flyovers at parades and professional sporting events, then surely we can cover the cost of aiding a close ally in an operation that supports U.S. national security interests.”

The remarks come after Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta complained last month that U.S. assistance to France had been delayed because of questions raised by administration lawyers.

“I find that every time I turn around I face a group of lawyers,” Panetta told reporters in Rome after a meeting with Italian Defense Minister Giampaolo di Paola. The administration lawyers want “to be sure that they feel comfortable that we have the legal basis to do what we are being requested to do.”

The State Department had initially hoped to see democracy restored in Mali and an African-led force put together ahead of any intervention against the militants. That timeline was thrown out the window when Islamists threatened to take over the southern part of the country last month, precipitating the French intervention.

The U.S. is now fully cooperating with the French, Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Johnnie Carson testified Thursday.

“From the very beginning and at the request of the Malian government, we worked closely with the French to support their efforts and those of our African partners,” he told the committee in written testimony. “We continue to support their efforts by sharing information, providing airlift support for personnel and equipment, and aerial refueling.”

He said the State Department is seeking $96 million from Congress to support the African-led International Support Mission in Mali that the United Nations Security Council authorized last December.