- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 20, 2011

Key congressional leaders on Sunday said President Obama must do a better job of defining the U.S. role in leading the coalition imposing a “no-fly zone” on Libya and how far the military is prepared to go to drive Libyan leader Col. Moammar Gadhafi from power.

In a sign of the delicate political position Mr. Obama faces on the Libyan clash, some skeptical lawmakers insisted the president had exceeded his authority and must seek approval for the military action from Congress.

But the main focus of concern on Capitol Hill is the level of the American commitment — with some saying the president has acted too slowly and must expand the U.S. role, while others, including GOP House Speaker John A. Boehner, arguing that the president must “better explain” what kind of conflict he has committed the U.S. to fight.

“The president is the commander in chief, but the administration has a responsibility to define for the American people, the Congress and our troops what the mission in Libya is,” said Mr. Boehner, Ohio Republican. “Before any further military commitments are made, the administration must do a better job of communicating to the American people and to Congress about our mission in Libya and how it will be achieved.”

But Mr. Obama also faced criticism from Sen. Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican, who said the president had been tardy to date in acting against Col. Gadhafi, and that Washington should assert more leadership of the international coalition patrolling the skies over Libya.

“I don’t know what finally got the president to act, but I am very worried that we are taking a back seat rather than a leadership role,” Mr. Graham said on “Fox News Sunday.” “We should seize the moment and talk about replacing [Col. Gadhafi], not talk about how limited we will be” in our military action.

He added, “Isolate, strangle and replace this man — that should be our goal.”

The comments came after American and European forces began a series of airstrikes against the Gadhafi government Saturday, pounding missile, radar and communication centers as part of a U.N.-sanctioned effort to impose a no-fly zone over Libya and to stop the controversial leader from launching air attacks against civilians and the rebel forces opposing his government.

Early into his five-day diplomatic swing through Latin America, Mr. Obama told reporters Saturday that he had signed off on the operation, dubbed “Odyssey Dawn.” The president said he had no choice but to authorize military strikes to help enforce the U.N.-authorized no-fly zone, and stressed that no U.S. ground troops would be deployed in what he called a “limited” mission.

Speaking Sunday from the Teatro Municipal in Rio de Janeiro, Mr. Obama said the people of Libya were taking a “courageous stand against a regime determined to brutalize its own citizens.”

“From the beginning, we have made clear that the change they seek must be driven by their own people,” he said. “As two nations who have struggled over many generations to perfect our own democracies, the United States and Brazil know that the future of the Arab world will be determined by its people.”

With U.S. forces already engaged in costly wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, lawmakers have wrestled over the size and scope of U.S. involvement in Libya, and divisions have emerged over the speed and manner in which Mr. Obama has handled the situation. But the debate on Capitol Hill has been muted with lawmakers heading home Thursday to begin a weeklong recess.

On Sunday, the military action against Libya dominated the television talk-show circuit. Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the immediate goal of the U.N.-authorized mission was to protect Libyan civilians, not to go “after Gadhafi himself or attacking him at this particular point in time.”

The limited nature of the military action — Mr. Obama said he has ruled out deploying U.S. ground troops in the conflict — brought expressions of support for the administration from some senior congressional Democrats.

“One of the reasons I predict there will be strong bipartisan support in the Congress for the president’s decision is because it is a limited mission — no boots on the ground — and because he has done this with great caution, with great care,” Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin, Michigan Democrat, said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

“One of the things I know our military were very concerned about was that there could be mission creep,” Mr. Levin added.

Appearing on CNN’s “State of the Union,” Sens. Joe Lieberman, Connecticut independent, and John McCain, Arizona Republican, aired their concerns that the Obama administration may have waited too long to respond to the dictator’s bloody crackdown against outgunned anti-regime forces.

“He waited too long, I have no doubt about it,” Mr. McCain said, but added, “I believe it’s not too late” to have an effective operation.

On CBS’ “Face the Nation,” Sen. Richard G. Lugar, Indiana Republican and ranking member on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said he has serious reservations about the U.S. getting more deeply involved in Libya. Mr. Lugar noted that the military effort will add to the nation’s fiscal woes and that “we really have not discovered who it is in Libya that we are trying to support.”

Mr. Lugar also repeated his belief that Congress should vote for a declaration of war before the U.S. shoulders a larger military role in the region.

“Before we go to war, there always ought to be a plan for what is going to proceed — that is, for us at least as well as for others — and what the outcome is, what we anticipate is going to occur,” he said.

Many Democrats, including Reps. John B. Larson, chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, and Dennis J. Kucinich of Ohio have shared similar concerns, arguing that the president should obtain congressional approval before giving the green light to military action.

“A commitment of U.S. forces should not occur under these circumstances,” Mr. Kucinich said Friday in a letter to Mr. Boehner.

“As then-Sen. Obama wrote, in 2007, ‘The president does not have the power under the Constitution to unilaterally authorize a military attack in a situation that does not involve stopping an actual or imminent threat to the nation.’ I agree.”

• Seth McLaughlin can be reached at smclaughlin@washingtontimes.com.

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