The Cable

How an exhausted White House lost Congress on Libya

The House of Representatives, in a culmination of over three months of Congressional frustration with the Obama administration's handling of the Libya intervention, voted against authorizing the war 123-295 and is set to vote for cutting off most of the funding for the mission.

The resolution to authorize the President Obama's intervention in Libya, sponsored by Rep. Alcee Hastings (D-FL), garnered only 8 GOP votes.

But all of this could have been avoided if overworked top Obama administration officials had not been too physically exhausted to pay a little more attention to Capitol Hill, according to the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee.

"It's crazy that we're fighting over this the way we are," Rep. Buck McKeon (R-CA) said in a roundtable with reporters just now.

The scene here at the Capitol on this sunny, summer Friday morning is surreal, as the three-hour debate continues. Lawmakers, who must still vote a resolution to cut off all funds for the war sponsored by Rep. Tom Rooney (R-FL), are continuously unleashing statements on why the Libya war represents a threat to the Constitution, a plundering of the Treasury, or an overreach of U.S. power.

The arguments against the war are all over the map. Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-NY) actually said the votes were the best way to prevent a decades-long slide into "monarchy." Rep. Ron Paul (R-TX) launched into a diatribe about the abuse of wartime contractors.

Democrats like Howard Berman (D-CA) and Jim McDermott (D-WA) tried to defend the president's policy by making the humanitarian argument and focusing on the limited nature of U.S. involvement. But they were shouted down by the war's opponents, many even from within their own party. "What, we don't have enough wars going on?" said Dennis Kucinich (D-OH), sarcastically.

To be clear, the votes today won't actually force President Barack Obama to terminate the U.S. military intervention in Libya. But though the votes are largely symbolic, that doesn't mean they aren't hugely important. The Obama administration realizes the negative impact of a rebuke by the House, and is even resorting to rhetoric that implies the GOP might actually be helping Col. Muammar al-Qaddafi.

"Who's side are you on?" Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said earlier this week, showing her deep frustration with Congressional opposition to the Libya war.

McKeon said this was exactly the kind of unhelpful statement that showed the administration's lack of respect for Congress and its fumbling of the politics of the Libya war.

"She is one of the ones that caused us to be where we are," McKeon shot back, in response to a question from The Cable.

So how did we get here? On March 17 -- the same day that Obama was pursuing the authorization for war at the United Nations and two days after he decided he wanted to attack Libya -- the president had a 90-minute lunch with House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) but never mentioned Libya once, McKeon said. McKeon left Washington that night, only to receive a phone call 10 a.m. Friday morning, saying, "The president wants you in the White House in an hour for a meeting."

"It's like at the last minute somebody thought ‘here's something we should check off, talk to the Congress,'" McKeon said.

When Clinton and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates eventually did come to Capitol Hill to brief Congress a week later, someone asked Clinton directly to address the issue of Congressional authorization and the War Powers Resolution.

"[Clinton] said, paraphrase, ‘It doesn't matter what you think, we're doing what we're doing.'" McKeon said. "I heard from a lot of people on both sides of the aisle that that really bothered them."

"Somebody else told me Secretary Clinton was living on about 3 or 4 hours sleep a night. So I just gave her the benefit of the doubt on that, I figured she was just tired and stressed when she made that comment," McKeon added.

McKeon then asked Gates to brief his committee for 3 hours, but Gates negotiated down the amount of time, telling McKeon, "I am exhausted... just physically," McKeon said.

Communication with Congress did not improve from then on, leaving lawmakers to come up with their own views on the war, McKeon said.

"There are a lot of people in the conference that feel the president has violated the constitution. And yet, some of those same people, they're not opposed to the mission in Libya," McKeon said." They think if he had met with Congress or in some way done a better job of setting up what he was going to do, they would feel much more comfortable and we wouldn't even be at the point where we are at."

McKeon is the quintessential GOP defense hawk in Congress. He is for steadily increasing defense budgets. He thinks Obama made a mistake by announcing the drawdown of troops in Afghanistan. He is concerned that the GOP is risking its credibility on national security.

"Conservative Republicans have a three legged stool: defense, fiscal responsibility, and social issues. Right now the stool is out of balance because fiscal matters are dominating everything," he said.

But when it comes to Libya, even he just doesn't see the logic of the endeavor.

"Why aren't we in Syria, why aren't we in Yemen," McKeon said.  [Obama's] argument, you could drive a tank through it. It doesn't make sense."

He doesn't believe President Obama's contention that the United States has taken itself out of the lead role in Libya. And he doesn't buy that a NATO-led mission that's dependent on the U.S. military is much different than any other international mission where the U.S. military is involved.

"The President is in a box because he's getting hit from the left as far as anything he does with the military, so he used [NATO] as cover," McKeon said. "NATO is us. So I think that was just a thing the president kind of used to say ‘hey it's not us.' They can't do it without us."

McKeon believes that the Libya war is currently in a stalemate, hindered by a mission plan that is meant to protect Libyan civilians, but does not permit the targeting of the despot who is killing those civilians.

So what does McKeon think we should do now? Kill Qaddafi. "We should get him, whatever it takes."

Does that include ground troops, we asked? "No."

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The Cable

Libyan rebel ambassador: Get it together, Washington!

The Libyan rebels are running out of money, but the Obama administration and Congress can't get their act together to provide urgently needed help to those fighting against Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi, according to the rebel's top envoy in Washington.

In a nondescript office building in northwest Washington, Ali Aujali, the U.S. representative of Libya's Benghazi-based Transitional National Council (TNC), sits behind an empty desk in a bare office. Once Qaddafi's official ambassador, he defected to the rebels in February and stayed in Washington as their liaison with the U.S. government.

His singular mission in Washington is to convince the administration and Congress to give the rebels access to the frozen assets of the Qaddafi regime. Four months into his mission, he is baffled by the lack of progress.

"To tell you the truth, we are very frustrated by this," he said in an exclusive interview with The Cable. "The TNC is facing a challenge, not only from Qaddafi's forces who are killing people every day, but also domestically. They are running out of money, they need finances to help the Libyan people to support their families,"

"Libya is not begging anyone for charity, but they must have access to the Libyan people's money that's frozen in many countries," he said.

Meanwhile, on Capitol Hill, lawmakers debate whether the Libyan intervention is a violation of the War Powers Resolution, whether the president consulted Congress sufficiently, and whether the campaign is in the U.S. national interest. But for Aujali and the TNC, that debate is a distraction from the urgent mission of fighting Qaddafi and helping the Libyan people pursue semi-normal lives.

"Here in the U.S., there is a long debate going on, there are many resolutions coming and going. Time is a factor. We should not get lost in the bureaucracy or in political issues or in the election campaign. Human lives are in danger," he said.

Aujali said that the TNC is grateful for U.S. support, and American leadership in the Libya campaign remains critical. He continues to meet with U.S. officials and lawmakers, but he is not encouraged.

"I have no news, I have no timeframe, I have no promises. Every day we have another resolution, another amendment, and we are getting lost in this," he said. "The people in Libya have a limit to their patience with the TNC and we don't want people to turn against the TNC... This is a serious situation."

It's true that the Obama administration gave $25 million in non-lethal supplies to the rebels, but that's not a lot of money in the grand scheme of things. By way of comparison, it costs about $148 million per year to provide Libyan students enrolled in colleges in the United States and Canada with funds for textbooks and food, Aujali said.

Plus, the MREs, blankets, and other assistance that the United States has provided is not what the rebels need. They need weapons. Barring that, they need money to buy weapons.

"Qaddafi is not fighting the Libyan people with potatoes," Aujali said.

So what's the hold up? The TNC's prime minister, Mahmoud Jibril, came to Washington last month and held extensive discussions with the White House, the State Department, the Treasury Department, and several lawmakers. He pleaded for the administration to recognize the TNC as the official government of Libya, which would give them access to the billions in frozen assets.

But the Obama administration refuses to do that because, despite launching an air campaign targeting Qaddafi's military and command infrastructure, it hasn't actually abandoned recognition of his regime.

The only other way for the TNC to receive the money is for Congress to pass legislation enabling it to be released, but that process is mired in the legislative process, Aujali said.

For example, for the main bill that would allow about $10 billion of the frozen assets to be used for humanitarian assistance in Libya,  Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN) offered an amendment that would require the U.S. to pay itself back for military operations first.  The bill also doesn't specify that the TNC would have a say in how the money is spent. Both of these issues are huge problems for the TNC.

"This is what Qaddafi is looking for," Aujali said. "This is very dangerous. This is what Qaddafi is telling people in speeches: ‘the West wants your money and your oil.' If this resolution passes, then Qaddafi has proof."

Aujali wants the United States to increase its involvement, attention, and international leadership in the Libya war, and he said that the international community has gone too far to stop now.

"We are grateful for the support, but we expect more. We need the U.S. to be more involved in the fight against Qaddafi," he said. "Congress has to understand that if this revolution does not succeed, that will be a great disaster.

He framed the Libyan struggle as part of the overall democratic revolution sweeping the Arab world, as President Obama did in his major speech last month.

"Washington must understand that if U.S. foreign policy is to help people to practice democracy, to observe human rights, and to have freedom of speech, than this is one pillar of that foreign policy," he said. "There are people rising against a dictatorship that has ruled them for 42 years and they need your help."

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