The US Congress Rebukes Obama over Libya – By Dr Michael J.K. Bokor

US President Barack Obama/WH Photo: Pete Souza
Even as NATO intensifies its bombing campaign in Libya—using attack helicopters for the first time—the news from the House of Representatives (Congress) of the United States suggests stiff opposition to the President’s conduct of affairs without first seeking Congressional approval.

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In a report headed “House Rebukes Obama for Continuing Libyan Mission Without Its Consent,” the New York Times (June 3, 2011) revealed that the House of Representatives voted Friday to rebuke President Obama for continuing to maintain an American role in NATO operations in Libya without the express consent of Congress, and directed the administration to provide detailed information about the cost and objectives of the American role in the conflict.

The resolution, which passed 268 to 145, was offered by the House’s Speaker, John A. Boehner, (Republican of Ohio) to siphon off swelling Republican support for a measure sponsored by Representative Dennis J. Kucinich, an Ohio Democrat, which calls for a withdrawal of the United States military from the air and naval operations in and around Libya. The resolution criticizing the President passed with the support of 45 Democrats and all but 10 of the Republicans who were present.

The measure from Mr. Kucinich, one of the most liberal members of the House, later failed by 148 to 265, with 87 Republicans voting in favor. Had this measure also succeeded, it would have created more problems for Obama.

This happening in Congress gives a clear signal that Obama has done something wrong in his decision to involve the US in the Libyan conflict without passing through the proper channel.

More clearly, it is clear that Congress regards Obama’s action as a violation of a statute, which definitely is a blot on his performance. Rebuking him for continuing the Libyan mission without its consent is a warning that Obama cannot afford to ignore. This is a serious position taken by Congress, its being the first time anything of the sort has happened to a US President in decades.

Although Congress’ action has no practical effect, it does suggest something crucial. The resolution is a political matter. As such, it is “an unusually blunt confrontation with an American President during a military conflict, and it underscores a bi-partisan distaste among members of Congress for attempts to bypass their authority when waging war,” according to Jennifer Steinhauer, the New York Times correspondent.

“Over all, roughly two-thirds of the House members who voted Friday backed one or two measures disapproving of the president’s actions,” she concluded.

Congress’ action will not force Obama to halt the US’ participation in NATO’s campaign; but it suggests that, at least, he will not be allowed to do things anyhow. The implications of this resolution are clear because of the direction in which Congress’ position seeks to move the relationship between the House and the Obama administration.
There may be support for the Libyan campaign but procedurally, something went amiss; and settling that score can have an unanticipated sequel.

One strong point of Mr. Boehner’s resolution is its demand that the administration provide, within 14 days, detailed information about the nature, cost and objectives of the American contribution to the NATO operation, as well as an explanation of why the White House did not come to Congress for permission to continue to take part in the mission.

The language of Mr. Boehner’s resolution suggests that the House may consider funding requests for the Libya operation in a harsh light if not satisfied with the response to its requests for information, according to the New York Times report.

How the Obama administration responds to this rebuke and demand will set the tone for future interactions. I have a hunch that a collision course is in sight and both Congress and the Senate or Obama administration are walking gradually toward it.

Even though support for NATO’s campaign in Libya is not in dispute, Mr. Boehner’s resolution gives a hint of how the Obama administration’s failure to seek Congressional approval has affected relations. The veiled threat in his resolution must not to be taken slightly because of its likelihood of inflaming passions further. The problem that cropped up between the Republican-dominated House and the Obama administration over budget issues, which nearly closed down the US government business, is still simmering. Thus, anything that adds a different complexion to the matter cannot be dismissed as a mere irritant. It is foreboding.

The position adopted by Congress also raises an important issue. Arguments surrounding the resolution indicate that concerns and questions over the US’ participation in the Libyan conflict are not only being raised in the House but also down the line among the population. Members of both parties complained of war fatigue in their districts, and the reluctance of constituents to support another front.

And as the New York Times report has it, Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (the Florida Republican who is chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee), said bluntly: “It is not surprising that there is a desire to simply say, ‘Enough.’” She was one of those who voted for Mr. Boehner’s resolution.

Certainly, the strong language in which the sentiments were couched should be recognized.

Another implication of Congress’ resolution suggests a division in the US Establishment as both Congress and the Senate seem to be taking different positions on the US’ involvement in the Libyan campaign. As the New York Times report noted, the issue (as contained in Congress’ resolution) is unlikely to be taken up by the Senate, which seems to be taking the opposite tack.

Last month, Senators John Kerry, Democrat of Massachusetts, and John McCain, Republican of Arizona, both military veterans, introduced a resolution to express support for the Libyan mission.
We are beginning to see a conflict of interest that can lead to just anything.

As matters are turning out now, the US’ participation in the Libyan military campaign is not only a test case for Obama alone but the entire political establishment. We can see that both the House and Senate are not on the same page, meaning that they have a hurdle to jump in assuring the US population that they can be trusted to rein in the Executive so that nothing reckless is done to damage the country’s interests. If their differences thicken, however, they will spill over into the political campaign period and have dire consequences.

For Obama particularly, this is the first major challenge to him in his handling of an international engagement. The problems that he faced in his push for health care reform, which negatively affected the chances of the Democratic Party at the mid-term elections and gave the Republican Party the majority it needs in Congress to overturn some of his policies, should forewarn him that his conduct of affairs can have far-reaching effects on his party’s political fortunes.

More importantly, Obama needs to know that the opposition that he has begun facing from both Republicans and members of his own party in respect of the Libyan crisis will likely spill over into other issues to keep him on his toes. He needs to tread cautiously so as not to put impediments on his own path.

That’s why he has to listen to reason to accept other means to resolve the Libyan crisis than what NATO has used all this while.

It is not as if Obama doesn’t have other problems. Latest reports indicate that the US employment situation isn’t good and that the unemployment rate is rising. It must be noted that such a situation doesn’t augur well for someone like Obama who entered office on the strength of the slogan, “Change We Can.”

His re-election bid will definitely be influenced by this economic indicator and other concerns that have angered the electorate. He may as well tread with caution and pause to reflect carefully on issues before thumping his chest to reassure himself of an easy victory. The Republican Party may be finding it difficult to put forward a “strong” candidate capable of unseating him; but if his performance doesn’t satisfy the voters, they will not retain him just because he is the incumbent.

On top of it all, the continuing bombardment of Libya will definitely have its implications for Obama when he faces the electorate for a renewal of his mandate, especially if the burgeoning opposition to his authority worsens the relations between him and his critics.

Let’s not forget that his answer to the Arab-Israeli problem has already created doubts about his ability to resolve that problem. Israel has not only criticized his recommendations but it has also pooh-poohed them. Obama risks losing the support of the Jewish community if nothing concrete comes from him to facilitate the debate or resolve that conflict. So far, his rhetoric has fallen short of expectation, as we can infer from the Israeli Prime Minister’s (Benjamin Netanyahu’s) ridiculous statements responding to Obama’s suggestion of a return to the 1967 boundary line as a step toward resolving the conflict.

How he handles Congress’ demands concerning the Libyan crisis and other issues will determine where he lies in the estimation of both his admirers and critics. For me, I still stand my ground that the continuing military campaign in Libya is not the solution to that country’s political problem.