Congress asleep at the wheel on US operations in Libya
© Getty Images

Americans woke up on Monday, Aug. 1, to news that the U.S. military had expanded operations against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) to a fourth front — this time in Libya, a nation that continues to be riven by multiple governments claiming legitimacy, wide-open borders, a struggling economy and a country hosting an alphabet soup of jihadist groups.


Unfortunately, those same Americans were not provided a national debate from their government about whether an expansion of the counter-ISIS campaign in Libya on behalf of a weak, U.N.-supported administration is the correct course of action at this time. Instead, the country was afforded a quick 159-word press statement from the Pentagon announcing that the United States is now opening up yet another front in the never-ending war on terrorism.

Americans, especially the brave men and women of our armed forces who put their lives on the line, deserve better. Congress must assert its role in foreign policy, or the president will continue to consult foreign governments about our military actions instead of the American people.

"Today, at the request of the Libyan Government of National Accord (GNA), the United States military conducted precision air strikes against ISIL [an alternate acronym for ISIS] targets in Sirte, Libya, to support GNA-affiliated forces seeking to defeat ISIL in its primary stronghold in Libya," Pentagon Press Secretary Peter Cook said. "These strikes were authorized by the president following a recommendation from Secretary Carter and Chairman [of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Joseph] Dunford. ... GNA-aligned forces have had success in recapturing territory from ISIL thus far around Sirte, and additional U.S. strikes will continue to target ISIL in Sirte in order to enable the GNA to make a decisive, strategic advance."

Translation: The U.S. Air Force and very likely special operations forces will now be fighting ISIS in Libya as long as the Libyan government continues to provide its consent and believes that U.S. assistance is necessary to expel ISIS from its territory.

For observers who have been monitoring Libya's political situation since NATO helped overthrow Moammar Gadhafi's regime, U.S. military intervention in the North African state is not a surprise. The U.S. military has been engaged in isolated operations against terrorist networks inside Libya for the past two years, including a snatch-and-grab operation to nab Ahmed Abu Khattala (who has since been indicted on terrorism charges in U.S. District Court) and a precision airstrike on an ISIS training camp in February 2016 near the Libyan city of Sabratha, which killed more than 40 militants stationed in the area.

Both of them were plausibly connected to a specific U.S. national security interest; in the case of Khattala, justice for the 2012 Benghazi attacks, and in Sabratha, the prevention of a possible terrorist attack on Tunisia, a key U.S. partner in the region. Both were also one-off operations that — one could argue — didn't necessarily require input or approval from the U.S. Congress under the War Powers Act, a piece of legislation that presidents of both political parties have watered down to the point of irrelevance during wartime.

The beginning of a brand-new military operation that is expected to continue into the immediate future, however, is far different from those two previous cases. What Pentagon and White House officials are indicating is that U.S. military assets will be employed for as long as it takes the Libyan government to recapture the city of Sirte.

Given the history of the counter-ISIS campaign over the past two years, however, the accomplishment of one objective can easily turn into a far more expansive mission, like the dismantling of the ISIS network across the entire expanse of Libyan territory. What was originally described as a humanitarian operation on behalf of Iraq's Yazidis in August 2014 quickly morphed into a full-blown war against a terrorist organization one month later, with the conflict only increasing in intensity with little or no debate in Congress.

To their credit, there are some members of Congress who are tired of watching from the sidelines. Sen. Tim KaineTimothy (Tim) Michael KaineHow leaving Afghanistan cancels our post-9/11 use of force Manchin on collision course with Warren, Sanders On The Money: Incomes, consumer spending soared in March | Harris, senators work behind scenes on jobs package | Biden cancels some border wall construction MORE (D-Va.), Democratic nominee Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonMore than half of eligible Latinos voted in 2020, setting record Fox News signs Trey Gowdy, Dan Bongino for new shows The Memo: GOP attacks bounce off Biden MORE's running mate, has been the loudest advocate for a new authorization for the use of military force tailored specifically to the war against ISIS. Ditto Republican Sens. Jeff FlakeJeffrey (Jeff) Lane FlakeThe Hill's 12:30 Report - Presented by Facebook - Republican reactions to Cheney's removal Flake: No greater offense than honesty in today's Republican Party Cheney set to be face of anti-Trump GOP MORE (Ariz.) and Rand PaulRandal (Rand) Howard PaulBuckingham Palace requests 'Trump Train' remove image of queen from bus The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Cheney poised to be ousted; Biden to host big meeting Overnight Health Care: Biden announces 1M have enrolled in special ObamaCare sign-up period | Rand Paul clashes with Fauci over coronavirus origins | Biden vows to get 'more aggressive' on lifestyle benefits of vaccines MORE (Ky.), both of whom strongly believe that the executive branch is shredding Article I, Section 8 of the U.S. Constitution, and the War Powers Act, which mandates a full, honest and open debate in front of the American people before U.S. jets or U.S. soldiers are deployed for a mission that is open-ended.

Due in part to a broadening of the executive branch's authority over the past 15 years and the unwillingness of lawmakers in both parties to press for accountability, the costs, length, unintended consequences and strategic benefits of U.S. military force are no longer debated in front of American people.

Instead, launching more airstrikes on more countries is the exclusive domain of the men and women who are fortunate enough to be working in the Pentagon or the National Security Council.

It's long past time that Congress get back in the game on matters of war and peace. Holding hearings, screaming at administration witnesses and carping from the sidelines is not a substitute for a real, honest and straightforward assessment — before, not after, American troops and pilots are sent into harm's way. That is what the U.S. Constitution requires, it's what our soldiers deserve, and it's why the American people elect leaders to represent their interests in Congress.

DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities.

The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill.