The Libya Conundrum

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(l to r): Pete Marovich / Zuma Press, Saul Loeb / AFP / Getty Images

Speaker of the House John Boehner and US President Barack Obama

The House of Representatives on Friday is expected to hold two votes on U.S. action in Libya. One will fail and one will pass. House GOP leaders are hoping that the Democratic-controlled Senate will take up the one that passes. Unfortunately for them, the Senate is fixated on the one that will fail. All of which is to say, both sides lack a unified vision of how to handle the U.S.-backed NATO operation in the northern African country.

The confusion might have been prevented if President Obama had just asked Congress before plunging into what amounts to the worst botched assassination attempt in history. Back when this mess began, in the midst of the Arab Spring, Congress would’ve been much more prone to supporting a democratic movement against Muammar el-Qaddafi. As it stands now, the U.S. wants him gone–but the mission doesn’t hinge on it (at least officially).

The Obama Administration argues that the U.S. isn’t really at war  – a definition the Libyans hit by one of the 90 missiles dropped by U.S. planes and drones during the last three months might disagree with. Apparently, the Administration defines hostilities – an interpretation concocted over the objections of two top Pentagon lawyers – as a condition that exists only when U.S. troops are in a position to be fired upon. In Obama’s ideal world, Congress need not concern itself with this little non-war thingy. Nothing to see here people. Move along.

But Congress won’t move on. Obama has put House Speaker John Boehner in the uncomfortable position of having to bail him out. With the libertarian-leaning GOP freshmen and progressive doves up in arms over the “war,” Boehner has little choice but to address the issue. But he wasn’t about to allow his conference to pass an extreme measure defunding all U.S. action in Libya, which would freak out the European allies who are leading the mission. So the Speaker has crafted a plan that offers some political cover.

The first vote tomorrow will be on a resolution identical to the one introduced in the Senate by John Kerry, a Massachusetts Democrat, and John McCain, an Arizona Republican. That measure would authorize the President to use force in Libya — though not ground troops – for up to one year. It will fail, thus proving that there are not enough votes in the House to support even a limited U.S. role in the conflict.

Then the House will vote on a bill that would restrict U.S. funding of the conflict in Libya to four activities: search and rescue; intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance; aerial refueling; and operational planning. Already, this constitutes the bulk of the U.S. operation in Libya, the cost of which has already topped $715 million. The only change would be a ban on attacks by drones or manned aircraft. It will pass–but Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has made no commitment to bring it to the floor of the upper chamber.

In a conference call last week with reporters, deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes said that he believes the conflict in Libya is winding down as Qaddafi’s resources dwindle. If this is true, then theoretically the Administration might support the House bill. (The White House did not answer an e-mail query.) The Senate, meanwhile, is waiting to see what happens in the House. It could take up the Kerry/McCain measure next week, which looks like it has enough support to pass. If the Senate won’t pass the House bill and the Senate bill can’t pass the House, we will have reached an impasse.