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Obama vs. Congress Over Libya -- Will Qaddafi Be the Ultimate Winner In This Showdown?

This week in Washington looks like the climax of Sergio Leone’s classic Western “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.” The president and Congress are on course for a serious shootout over Libya.

The good: Odds are, Col. Muammar Qadhafi cannot hang on forever. NATO operations have taken his military down by about a third. The Transitional National Council (TNC) has not done half bad. In the field, the rebels have been gaining ground. Everyday they seem to pick up more support. 

Just last week, the UAE gave the Libyan ambassador 72 hours to get out of town and instead hand off official recognition to the TNC. The council has been a public relations campaign to convince the West it won’t follow the path of Al Qaeda. And while there may be some Islamist extremists in their ranks, so far there have been only a few signs of foreign fighters.

The ways things are going, the TNC may represent a real option. Right now, a viable opposition authority in Libya and international pressure (including arms and financial embargos) are more likely than NATO military operations to lead to the end of Qadhafi’s regime.

The bad: The White House has damaged relations with Congress so much that the whole debacle may be beyond repair. The senseless back-and-forth on the War Powers Resolution makes no sense. The withdrawal provision is clearly unconstitutional.

Putting that aside, the president had the time and every reason to consult the Congress. He didn’t. Congress has every right to be miffed.

The only response Congress can make that has any real force behind it is to withdraw funding for the operation. But cutting off funding presents two problems: 

First, it would leave NATO in lurch. Make no mistake: Without U.S. support, the NATO operation would fall apart. 

Second, walking away in the middle of the fight would send a terrible signal concerning U.S. commitment to the alliance (particularly after Defense Secretary Robert Gates’ haranguing last week).

The ugly: Qaddafi can read a calendar. He knows that Obama and Congress are on a collision course. He knows the longer he holds out, the harder he can bargain. Obama, in fact, encouraged Qaddafi's desire to hang on by pressing for the U.N. Security Council to refer the Libyan strongman to the International Criminal Court -- the ICC. Under the threat of the ICC hounding him across the earth, Qaddafi has no motivation leave. 

So much for the president’s promise that the great leader would be gone in days or weeks. Unless there is some kind of legislative cease-fire between the president and Congress, Qaddafi will continue to draw courage and comfort from the bickering in Washington.

The in-fighting is senseless. It is also unlikely that an immediate cut-off of funds, or call for immediate withdrawal, would get through the Senate. A possible comprise (given commitments already made by the president) would be to fund operations until the end of the 90-day extension that NATO authorized for “Operation Unified Protector” in Libya. Any funding of operations beyond that date could require specific congressional approval.

By adopting this course, the U.S. would fulfill its obligations to its NATO allies and allow a reasonable amount of time to transition from an inconclusive military operation to a negotiated path forward.

There are “roadmaps” aplenty out there for getting Qaddafi out of Tripoli. Surely, one of them one of them must offer a suitable path forward. 

James Jay Carafano is Deputy Director, The Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studiesand Director, Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies at The Heritage Foundation

James Jay Carafano is vice president of foreign and defense policy studies  The Heritage Foundation. Follow him on Twitter @JJCarafano.