The aerial bombardment by coalition forces in Libya does not seem to have stopped Moammar Gadhafi from laying siege to and holding several towns in the country. It may be true that the no-fly zone and taking out of air defenses stopped a slaughter in Benghazi, but it’s also true that fighting has continued elsewhere. Gadhafi is holding Misurata and Ajdabiya for the time being.
Rebel fighters trying to retake the eastern town of Ajdabiya said they were driven back on Monday by rocket and tank fire from government loyalists still controlling entrances to the city. Dozens of fighters retreated to a checkpoint around 12 miles north of Ajdabiya, and rebels said at least eight others had been killed during the day’s fighting, including four who had been standing in a bloodied pickup truck that the fighters showed to reporters.
There were conflicting reports about whether the allies had attacked loyalist forces in Ajdabiya. While planes had been heard overhead, the rebel fighters said there appeared to have been no attack on the pro-Qaddafi forces holding the entrance to Ajdabiya on the coastal highway leading north to Benghazi. Ajdabiya is a strategically important town that has been much fought over, straddling an important highway junction and acting as a chokepoint for forces trying to advance in either direction.
The retreat from Ajdabiya appeared to have thrown the rebels into deep disarray, with one commander at the checkpoint trying to marshal the opposition forces, using a barely functioning megaphone, but few of the fighters heeding his exhortations.
What this all means is that, if the no-fly zone’s intended effect was to facilitate the rebels advancing toward Tripoli and pressuring Gadhafi’s grip on power, that isn’t happening yet. Indeed, what we’re seeing is likely to be a long war, as officials on both sides of the conflict have maintained. The rebels will call for more offensive strikes on Gadhafi by the coalition, and a call for regime change rather than a humanitarian operation of protecting civilians. And unless they think a low-level civil war lasting years is a viable outcome, the coalition will be compelled to consider that.
Which brings us to this question of the Constitutionality of this operation. Sen. Jim Webb told MSNBC today that “We have not put this in front of the American people in any meaningful way.” And he’s right. The decision came together quickly and was acted upon by the President without a formal declaration of war. The White House is clearly sensitive to this critique. At a press briefing today, National Security Advisor Thomas Donilon stressed that this was a legal operation:
Q I apologize if this was covered earlier by Admiral Mullen — first off, real quick, is there any cost estimate as to how much this is going to cost in terms of U.S. resources? And then also, you talked about and obviously have consulted with Congress.
MR. DONILON: Yes.
Q But that’s not the same, obviously, as seeking permission. There are some lawmakers out there that say the President should have gotten their approval before committing U.S. military resources. And also, how does that square with the President’s own words in 2007 when he said the only time the President could authorize an attack without the consent of Congress would be in self-defense, which obviously isn’t the case here?
MR. DONILON: Well, that’s a lot of questions. Let me — I’ll try to take them in some order. Here’s how we’d approach it. First of all, consultation with Congress is important, as I said. Secondly, the administration welcomes the support of Congress in whatever form that they want to express that support.
Third, as I indicated during the course of the briefing, this is a limited, in terms of scope, duration and task, operation, which does fall in the President’s authorities.
Fourth, the circumstances arose with the passage of the United Nations Security Council on Thursday, the night before a congressional recess. So he did, even with that, call Congress, those who remained in town on Friday and those who are out of town, on the phone to consult with them.
But the administration welcomes expressions of support in whatever form that the Congress wants to have those.
I can’t believe he’s trying to get away with the “Congress was out of town” excuse on an issue of war powers. I do agree that Congress doesn’t necessarily want this responsibility and is happy to grant power to the President on this so they don’t have to take a tough vote. That’s just reality. But you’d think, given the focus on the Constitution in the past several months, that somebody would read it and figure out who gets to rule over issues of war.
Donilon went on to say that he thinks the President has been fully candid in terms of detailing the scope of the mission, which is surprising, as I follow these things fairly closely and I don’t have the first clue what the scope is.