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US public, Congress remain skeptical of Libyan mission

Barack Obama has been slow to support military action against Moammar Gadhafi. With good reason: The Libyan mission is a contentious issue in the US, both with the American public and with Congress.

Obama speaks about Libya at the National Defense University in Washington, March 28, 2011

Barack Obama's stance on Libya has come under criticism

Before finally signing on to the French and British drive to use military action against Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi, President Obama had been biding his time.

While he had already on March 3 demanded that Gadhafi "must go," he was initially reluctant to apply military power and to explain his stance to the American public. Even after the air strikes began following a UN Security Council mandate authorizing a no-fly zone and the protection of civilians on March 17, Obama hadn't yet publicly made his case.

That eventually happened on March 28 when the president in a televised speech explained his rationale for the Libyan mission.

But Americans generally are not yet convinced of US involvement in Libya and of the goals of this intervention. Even after Obama's speech on Libya, which was largely well received, most Americans aren't sold on US involvement, polls show.

According to a Quinnipiac University survey two days after the speech, Americans are conflicted about US involvement in Libya. While a majority approves cruise missiles to destroy Gadhafi's air defenses and military force to protect civilians, a majority also says the US should not use military power to remove Gadhafi.

But perhaps these mixed signals of a war-weary public reflect Obama's own stance on the Libyan mission.

"This is the lowest level of support for a large-scale use of American military forces in early stages of an engagement that we have seen," Jeremy Mayer, an associate professor of political science at George Mason University in Arlington, Virginia, told Deutsche Welle. "And this is precisely because Obama has not prepared the public for this. He initially hoped that Gadhafi would fall like Tunisia and Egypt fell."

Specter of Rwanda

As that turned out not to be case and instead Gadhafi forces were rapidly defeating the rebels in one key town after another, the president had to act. The situation in Benghazi, the last major rebel-held town, forced Barack Obama's hand, especially after Gadhafi declared he would have no mercy on the rebels there.

"The specter haunting the White House was Rwanda," said Mayer. "This has been a 550 million dollar intervention to prevent a massacre in Benghazi."

Nicolas Sarkozy

Washington has let Nicolas Sarkozy lead the debate over military action

What's more, while Obama's repeated assertion that this is not an American, but an international mission is of course legally accurate, it obscures the fact that without the US this operation, although now officially led by a Canadian general, would simply not have taken place.

"We have not been the leading nation, we have let Sarkozy and to a lesser extent Britain lead this publicly," argued Mayer. "But in terms of actual military material, the US is providing 90 to 95 percent of everything that gets blown up in Libya. It's just a simple force projection formula. There aren't other countries with the ability to do that. So it is an American mission."

Even if the US military scales back its role in Libya, it will still remain the essential backbone of the operation.

Critical Congress

It's not just the public that remains unconvinced about the Libyan intervention. There's also opposition in Congress from both Republicans and Democrats. Some argue that the president did too little too late, others criticize that President Obama launched the attacks unilaterally and without a debate or vote in Congress.

The argument made by some in Congress that President Obama failed to comply with the controversial War Powers Act of 1973 which gives Congress the power to authorize military action - an act which has been ignored and deemed unconstitutional by Obama's seven predecessors - appears largely academic.

However, it could damage his credibility because Obama himself explicitly supported the War Powers Act in 2007 and unlike his predecessors he also holds the title of Nobel Peace Prize laureate.

Richard Lugar, the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee who has supported Obama on many previous occasions, criticized the president for both failing to seek authorization from Congress and for not explaining US goals in Libya sufficiently.

"The United States entered the civil war in Libya with little official scrutiny or debate," Lugar said after the administration briefed Congress earlier this week. "I do not believe the president has made a convincing case for American military involvement in that country."

Whether the rumblings in Congress grow louder, depends largely on how the events unfold in Libya.

Congress and Germany

The guided-missile destroyer USS Barry launches a Tomahawk cruise missile

The US provides the military muscle behind the operation

"I think the longer the conflict goes on the more likely it is that there will be strains with both the Republicans in Congress, but also members of his own party who have criticized Obama for engaging in a third war with a Muslim country," Christiane Lemke, a professor of political science at Leibniz University Hannover and currently the Max Weber Chair at New York University, told Deutsche Welle.

"That's a very sensitive issue here in the US."

Congress has of course a very direct role in the Libyan engagement, explained Lemke: "After all Congress has to approve all financial aspects of this military action."

But predicted Mayer, "Congress doesn't have the guts to tell a president - and they never have since the War Powers Act of 1973 - to stop this war right now."

"I would say the American Congress on this issue is very similar to Germany within NATO. The American Congress probably doesn't like this very much with some exceptions, but they are not going to stop it just as Germany which has a veto and could have stopped this in NATO and so could Turkey, but they didn't want to be the ones to do this."

Author: Michael Knigge
Editor: Rob Mudge

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