Congress Divided Over Libya

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It’s not surprising that Congress is split on how to handle the situation in Libya. But the divisions don’t break neatly along party lines. No-fly zone advocates include Democrats John Kerry and Bob Menendez, Republicans John McCain and Lindsey Graham, and Joe Lieberman, an independent who caucuses with Democrats but is hawkish on foreign policy. Richard Lugar, a Republican respected for his foreign-policy expertise, has come out against U.S. intervention. At a Senate Foreign Relations committee hearing yesterday morning, Lugar explained his reticence: “Given the costs of a no-fly zone, the risks that our involvement would escalate, the uncertain reception in the Arab street of any American intervention in an Arab country, the potential for civilian deaths, the unpredictability of the endgame in a civil war, the strains on our military, and other factors, I am doubtful that U.S. interests would be served by imposing a no-fly zone over Libya.”

Like Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Lugar has argued that imposing a no-fly zone is an act of war, and thus requires Congressional approval. As Congressional Quarterly reports, several Senators — including Democrat Jim Webb and Republicans Bob Corker and Rand Paul — are lining up with Lugar. It’s true that the President is restricted in his ability to send troops into combat without Congressional authorization. But it’s worth noting that Congress has not formally declared war since World War II; it authorized the use of military force in Iraq and Afghanistan through joint resolutions. It’s also unclear for the moment what role the U.S. will play in the joint operation in Libya. And as the CQ report makes clear, there’s a huge chasm between the level of support for a no-fly zone — and the air strikes the U.N. resolution authorizes — and support for a boots-on-the-ground approach.

The developing debate will be an interesting test of Tea Party foreign policy. The diffuse movement, built around its advocacy of less spending and less government, has never articulated a uniform stance on foreign affairs, and many of its members have evinced an isolationism that runs counter to the party’s neoconservative standard-bearers. Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, a Tea Party high priestess, told Fox yesterday that she opposed military intervention in Libya. “I’m reluctant to go in, and I’ll tell you why: We don’t know who the opposition is,” she said. “We have no idea, and no intelligence community will tell you that we know who the opposition is.” The growing strain of isolationism within the party was punctuated by Haley Barbour’s musings this week about a draw-down in Afghanistan–which drew a predictable rebuke from neoconservative Bill Kristol.

Of course, the crucial factor for many Congressmen will be this: their constituents, weary of two grinding ground wars and the financial resources they require, don’t support military intervention in Libya. According to a Fox News poll released yesterday, 65% of Americans — 70% of Democrats and 59% of Republicans — “oppose the U.S. military getting involved.” Whether their representatives agree remains, for the most part, an open question.