On Thursday morning, the Obama administration was supposed to finally report to the Senate on progress in the campaign against Muammar Qaddafi’s Libya, which began March 19. Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg took a chair in the foreign relations committee hearing room. Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, was ready with questions:
—The 60-day deadline for Congress to pass a bill authorizing the intervention, a provision of the War Powers Resolution, was coming up. “Does President Obama plan to ask Congress for such a resolution?”
—NATO hadn’t yet said whether there was a terrorist presence in the Libyan opposition. “What additional information have you seen to support the assertion that there is not a significant al-Qaida or terrorist presence in the Libyan Interim Transitional National Council?”
—The rebels seemed to have lost momentum since mid-April. “Can Libyan TNC forces prevail against pro-Qaddafi forces without an augmented participation of NATO? Could NATO continue this mission without the participation of the United States?”
These were Lee’s questions. He didn’t get to ask them. The hearing lasted a little less than an hour, and only five senators had time to quiz Steinberg. Before they started, Chairman John Kerry, D-Mass., apologized; the senators were “under the gun” with meetings at the White House, where the drama over the debt ceiling vote was playing out.
There was nothing new there. Two and a half months since the Libyan civil war broke out, and coming up on two months since the start of Operation Odyssey Dawn, Congress is at something of a loss. Republicans are very unhappy about the lack of information they’re getting. Democrats are merely unhappy. Unless something changes very quickly, the resolution that Lee mentioned will be, in Kerry’s words, “in limbo.”
Limbo is taking on a lot of new residents. Democrats and Republicans who back the White House are not obsessing over the War Powers Act. Yes, they want to know what happens if Qaddafi goes. After Osama Bin Laden was killed, though, all of this faded into the background. “I’m not looking, necessarily, at this point in time, for an additional vote,” said Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Md., the Democrats’ House whip.
Critics of the intervention—many of them are critics of the way it was handled, not the goal—don’t expect a vote. They’re worried about precedent; they’re worried about what happens next, even and especially if the rebels win.
“I think we’ve been muddling through this,” said Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz., one of the key progressives in the House. “I think we need something definitive about the administration and what their policy is in Libya. I think if there was a resolution, it would be hard pressed to pass.”
At the hearing on Thursday, Kerry gave reason after reason to be optimistic that the whole “congressional authorization” discussion might not matter. “The situation in Libya,” he said, “which appears to be significantly stalemated, I think is different than it appears.” Rebels claimed to have secured the city of Misrata and pushed away Qaddafi’s forces. “We’re back closer—not exactly where we were—but closer to where we were at the start, when this swept the whole country.”
Steinberg echoed some of that optimism, albeit very carefully. He stressed something that answered worries about both how long the conflict would last and whether Congress had to pass a resolution of its own. “The very substantial majority of operations are being conducted by coalition partners,” he said. “We have reduced our role to primarily a support role. In cases where we have unique assets, they’re being made available.”
The implication: This intervention in Libya might not need a vote in Congress. NATO has taken the lead on it; America’s role is mostly supportive, paid for out of the defense budget. All is well.
Republicans don’t want to hear it. Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., the ranking member of the committee, had criticized the lack of communication between the White House and Congress since the start of the intervention. Lugar had been seen—accurately—as a foreign policy mentor to Obama when the future president was a senator. That was a long time ago.
“We’re moving rapidly down the trail,” Lugar told Steinberg, “in a situation where we haven’t declared war, the War Powers Act hasn’t been observed, we have no particular authority for any of this aside from the president’s assertion that we needed to save lives. We have already pumped the missiles into Libya, at some expense. The meter is still running on our expenditures and our defense budget without much accounting for how much can be attributable to Libya or how far we have to go.”
Steinberg nodded: “We provided notification to Congress consistent with the War Powers Act at the outset of the operation. As we continue to move forward, the president is committed to do that.”
Sen. Bob Corker, the compromise-minded Republican from Tennessee, was the only other member of Lugar’s party who quizzed Steinberg. “You use the word consultation,” he said, “but there really isn’t any consultation. It’s a nice word to use. I know today we asked that someone from the military be here, and you declined. I think someone asked you earlier what assets we did have engaged, and you deferred to military. I would like to ask why, in the name of consultation, the administration has been so remiss in letting us know actually what we’re doing as it relates to our military assets.”
“There are a number of forums where there are opportunities to explore these issues,” said Steinberg. “I think we need to explore how we can best get information to you.”
“Name the forum and I’ll be there,” said Corker. “I’m not busy after 1 p.m. today, and I’ll be around on Monday. Could you arrange to set it up and let us know what’s happening?”
That broke the tension; Steinberg agreed. Corker wasn’t done.
“This use of the word consultation is bogus,” he said, “and people like myself who cooperate with you in many ways, candidly, are getting a little impatient with the fact that basically you’re waiting until this conflict is mostly over, possibly, to even let us know what’s happening. I don’t consider that consultation. Nor do I consider that something that creates goodwill. Nor do I consider that something that’s going to cause us to work well together in the future.”
The hearing wrapped up not long thereafter. On the way out, as he was heading to the White House, Lugar confirmed that he still wanted a resolution. He still wasn’t satisfied with the contact between Congress and the White House. “We made clear our desire to have that consultation,” he shrugged. He pushed an elevator button and sped away.