The State Department said outright Monday that "the U.S. military is not going to be engaged in combat operations in Mali," but will continue to play a key role in bolstering the French mission to drive al Qaeda-linked rebels from the West African nation.
The remarks by spokeswoman Victoria Nuland followed weeks of legal and political debate within the Obama administration over how best to get involved. Despite the purported presence of al Qaeda in Mali, the White House appears intent on keeping the U.S. role in the conflict as limited as possible.
"We don't expect U.S. forces to become directly involved on the ground in combat either," she told reporters in Washington.
It is likely the administration seeks to avoid a repeat of the War Powers Act furor over the U.S.-backed intervention in Libya two years ago. At the time, the Republican-controlled House locked horns with President Obama by passing a non-binding resolution that accused him of failing to adequately consult Congress before authorizing military action in Libya.
The White House responded by detailing the roughly $1 billion spent on the Libya campaign, and arguing that Mr. Obama was well within his constitutional rights since the U.S. role was indirect and merely supportive of a wider, NATO-led bombing campaign.
While the legal standoff faded from the headlines, it remains a topic of back-room discussion on Capitol Hill. Republicans, specifically, have criticized the administration for "leading from behind" in Libya, where U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans were killed in a terrorist attack last year.
Regarding Mali, Mrs. Nuland has argued that U.S. law prohibited direct American aid to the Malian military, because it overthrew the nation's president in a coup last year. The coup prompted Mali's Islamist rebels to seize control of the nation's north.
For now, the Obama administration appears confident that it can legally authorize the U.S. military to aid French forces in the fight against those rebels — on the grounds that Mali's current military asked the French for help.
"Obviously, we have a number of legal things to work through," Mrs. Nuland said Monday.
U.S. involvement has so far included the deployment of five U.S. Air Force C-17 transport planes to carry French troops and tons of supplies and equipment in the West African nation. U.S. forces have also provided communications support to France, the former colonial master in Mali.
Mrs. Nuland said U.S. forces are engaged in a "discrete set of missions" that also includes "aerial refueling" of French aircraft.
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