Three senior Senate Demorats are coming to President Obama’s defense on his decision to seek international support before directing air strikes against Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi.
Sen. Dick Durbin (IL), the assistant majority leader, Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (MI) and Sen. Jack Reed (RI), a senior member of the Armed Services Committee, gave the President a collective pat on the back for his diplomatic and military decisions on Libya in the last week in the face of harsh criticism from both sides of the aisle that Obama’s handling of the Libyan crisis was too little too late and did not seek congressional approval for the military action.Durbin lauded Obama for moving with “unprecedented speed” to freeze Qaddafi’s assets and to build an international coalition for military action. So far, the U.S. has taken the lead in that effort, firing more than 160 cruise missiles aimed at destroying Qaddafi’s air force and ground capabilities and at preventing a massacre of Libyan civilians in Benghazi, the country’s second-largest city.
“It may have taken a few extra days,” Durbin told reporters on a conference call Wednesday, “but most of us would agree, I certainly would, that was a prudent course of action.”
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV), the top Senate Democrat in Congress, was noticeably absent from the phone call.
Recalling the buildup to the first war in Iraq in 1990, Durbin compared Obama’s actions to those of then-President George H.W. Bush before launching air strikes in Iraq against Saddam Hussein. Bush sought Congressional approval for that action, Durbin acknowledged, but there was far more time to do so in the lead up to that war than Obama had with Libya.
When Congress returns next week, Durbin said he expected senators to step up and demand a resolution either approving or denying Congressional support for the military action in Libya. Those who are trying to oppose the action or defund it would fail, he predicted.
The senators would not say how they planned to pay for the air strikes in Libya. Levin said he had heard “ballpark estimates” but was not going to pass them along because they were too preliminary. He said he has asked his staff to work with the Pentagon to establish an accurate cost estimate.
Levin also stressed that the cost born by the U.S. would be much less than expected because of its role as a “junior partner” in the wider, multi-lateral effort. The senators said they believed the U.S. would turn over its role as the military lead to its allies and Arab countries as soon as possible, although none of them could predict exactly when that would occur.
Levin also said he would pursue passage of a separate defense spending bill to fund the Pentagon and the war in Afghanistan and to take that issue off the table in the ongoing budget impasse over funding the government in 2011.
“I have to be all in favor of trying to get the defense budget passed as a separate matter if we cannot get all of it passed,” he told reporters on the call. “I don’t know if that’s where the leadership is going to be or if we have the votes” to do so, he said.
The comments came as NATO members struggled to agree on whether to take on an expanded role in Libyan and prevented the U.S. from handing the campaign against Qaddafi to other allies, according to a report in Bloomberg.
Reed credited Obama for his “deliberate, forceful approach,” but said the U.N. resolution is enough for us and our allies to take more aggressive military action to aid opposition forces.
“This is a very robust resolution in the U.N.,” he said. “A great deal of what’s going to happen is a function of how Qaddafi reacts. … If he continues to brutalize [the Libyan people], then the international community has the authority to take stronger action against his regime.”
President Barack Obama ruled out on Wednesday an invasion of U.S. troops on the ground to remove Qaddafi from power as coalition forces continued a fifth day of air strikes against Libyan government military targets there.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Wednesday that he could not accurately predict when the no-fly zone phase of the military action would end, but said he thought United States may be able to turn over control of it as early as Saturday.