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The Stakes in the Political Fight over Libya

Author: Deborah Jerome, Deputy Editor
June 21, 2011

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The House of Representatives is poised to vote on a measure limiting financing (NYT) for the U.S. military engagement in Libya, part of an escalating political push-back on the legality and purpose of the NATO campaign that began in March. Last week a coalition of ten members of Congress (Politico), led by anti-war Representatives Dennis Kucinich (D-OH) and Walter Jones (R-NC), sued President Barack Obama and Defense Secretary Robert Gates in federal court, arguing U.S. military action in the conflict is unconstitutional. But while debate about whether Obama has violated the 1973 War Powers Resolution is dominating discussion, there are also questions about the mission in Libya, the role of NATO, and how long the commitment there should last.

In a June 15 report defending its case for Libyan intervention, the White House lists its original arguments for intervention: to prevent a humanitarian catastrophe, to show support for the region's pro-democracy movements, and to prevent the spread of instability in a region critical to U.S. security. Critics point out that many of the same elements hold true for Syria, where the regime of Bashar al-Assad has cracked down ruthlessly on protesters. However, neither the UN Security Council, which authorized a no-fly zone over Libya in March, nor the Obama administration have raised the threat of military action, despite sharp rebukes from Washington and top UN officials. In a CNN.com commentary, Richard Roth calls this "the Libya hangover effect."

Regardless of the sniping on Capitol Hill, the support of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and other top Senate leaders guarantees "that anti-Libya legislation is going to die at the Senate's door even if it makes it out of the House," writes CFR's James M. Lindsay. Even so, questions are growing at home and abroad about the aims and viability of the Libyan operation, particularly during a time of economic uncertainty. Columnist George Will calls the intervention "the most protracted and least surreptitious assassination attempt in history" and blasts NATO as "a Potemkin alliance" that "provides a patina of multilateralism to U.S. military interventions on which Europe is essentially a free rider." An editorial in the Daily Telegraph mulls whether the Libyan operation is "really the best use of our fast-emptying contingency reserve?"

So far, the alliance's efforts in Libya have yet to buckle the regime. Despite intensified NATO bombing attacks, including a botched raid that killed at least nine Libyan civilians (CSMonitor) on June 19, the military effort is largely stalemated. In Congress, while Kucinich and others are calling for an immediate withdrawal, Senators Lindsay Graham (R-SC) and John McCain (R-AZ) have warned against it. And a recent letter to House Republicans from leading conservatives argues that for "the United States and NATO to be defeated by Muammar al-Qaddafi would suggest that American leadership and resolution were now gravely in doubt--a conclusion that would undermine American influence and embolden our nation's enemies.”

By contrast, CFR's Micah Zenko points out the heavy costs of continued conflict, including increased death and displacement of the civilian population, along with the danger that "political upheaval caused by sustained civil wars decreases almost all socioeconomic indicators, makes the eruption of post-conflict violence (including genocide (PDF) and mass atrocities) much more likely, and often produces violence for export." An editorial in the Globe & Mail says that the overstretched interpretation of the UN Security Council resolution on Libya has made it more difficult to respond to Assad's harsh repression in Syria. And in the Financial Times, Daniel Byman warns that the gap between military operations and political planning in Libya could be a recipe for disaster, as it was in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Additional Analysis

Despite a lot of sound and fury expected on the Hill, the fight over Libya and the War Powers Resolution isn't likely to yield anything significant, writes CFR's James M. Lindsay.

Obama's insistence that "U.S. military action in Libya doesn't constitute 'hostilities' is nonsense, and Congress is right to call him on it," writes Eugene Robinson in the Washington Post.

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