The debate over whether to arm rebels in Libya still rages, although given that we have CIA operatives on the ground coordinating airstrikes and a secret finding authorizing the President to provide covert support, including arms shipments, it seems like something of a red herring. But for what it’s worth, it’s incredibly unpopular. We knew that House Intelligence Chairman Mike Rogers (who would statutorily have to be consulted and give his assent even in a covert shipment, though that never stopped Ronald Reagan) was against it, and he mentions to Foreign Policy that the Obama cabinet was split on the notion. More important, Turkey, the only majority-Muslim member of NATO, is against it.
Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish prime minister, has said he does not support the idea of arming Libyan rebels fighting to oust Muammar Gaddafi from power.
Speaking at a joint news conference with David Cameron, the British prime minister, in London, Erdogan said: “Doing that would create a different situation in Libya and we do not find it appropriate to do that.”
Erdogan also said that that sending weapons to Libya could feed terrorism, saying such weapons shipments “could also create an environment which could be conducive to terrorism”.
Given the importance that the White House has attached to the buy-in of Muslim nations for the mission, I think that just about kills it. But Charlie Savage raises a good point that is somewhat related. If the UN mandate includes the responsibility to protect civilians, what happens if the Libyan rebels, whether armed by the West or not, strikes at civilians? NATO has warned the rebels not to attack civilians, even ones who support Gadhafi. This is quite a statement:
“We’ve been conveying a message to the rebels that we will be compelled to defend civilians, whether pro-Qaddafi or pro-opposition,” said a senior Obama administration official. “We are working very hard behind the scenes with the rebels so we don’t confront a situation where we face a decision to strike the rebels to defend civilians.”
I think this shows the nature of the clusterfuck we’ve stumbled into. We have at once taken sides in a civil war and also floated above it with a mandate to protect civilians, which may lead to us bombing anyone with a gun in Libya. This mandate is ripe for misunderstandings and the rebels on the ground turning on the coalition. And then you have to ask who, exactly, is a civilian, in all of these cases.
Robert Gates got an earful from Congress today about the mission, and the only decent takeaway was his adamant insistence that the US would not put forces on the ground. But lawmakers were quite angry about not being consulted, though honestly I tend to agree with Jim Cooper, paradoxically on this one. Congress doesn’t want this responsibility, they only want to throw stones later:
A resolution of support for the military action in Libya would be welcome, (Gates) noted.
That riled several Republicans who quickly predicted that such a resolution would likely fail in the House.
“I certainly would not be supporting it,” said Rep. Michael Turner (R-OH). “This mission is unclear and its goals are unclear.”
“This administration has not been honest with the American people that this [mission] is about regime change,” said Rep. Mike Coffman (R-CO). “This is just the most muddled definition of an operation probably in U.S. history.”
But Rep. Jim Cooper (D-TN), a centrist, responded by turning the tables on Congress. If Congress wants to start requiring Presidents to seek war power resolutions before authorizing military action, it needs to rewrite the laws and be more consistent in its requirements. The Senate, for instance, passed a resolution approving the creation of a no-fly zone in Libya before Obama launched the strikes.
“It’s really easy to do all of this Monday-morning quarterbacking,” he said. “We should be more than just arm-chair generals.”
If Congress wanted to reassert its Constitutional authority over war powers, they could do so any day of the week, in my view. It’s a choice that they don’t.