WASHINGTON – The White House and key allies hit back Wednesday at sharp criticism of President Barack Obama’s handling of strikes on Libya, saying the future of US ties with emerging Muslim leaders was at stake.
But Republican House Speaker John Boehner pressed Obama in a tough-worded letter to explain his strategy, calling himself “troubled” by the lack of details and demanding to know “what is your benchmark for success in Libya?”
Boehner noted that Obama had called for Libyan leader Moamer Kadhafi to leave power, but that the UN Security Council resolution authorizing military force to protect civilians did not endorse regime change in Tripoli.
“Is it an acceptable outcome for Kadhafi to remain in power after the military effort concludes in Libya? If not, how will he be removed from power?” the lawmaker asked pointedly.
That question came after key US senators said on a conference call arranged to defend Obama’s approach that the president had taken a “cautious and thoughtful” tack and averted “a real slaughter of civilians” in Libya.
The number-two Democrat in the US Senate, Dick Durbin, told reporters that US action reflected Washington’s need to cement ties with new Middle East leaders emerging from recent regional political upheaval.
“What we are trying to assert are the basic values of our country to make certain that the next generation of leaders in these nations that are undergoing change can identify with the United States,” he said.
Durbin has been asked to explain why Washington had chosen to intervene in Libya in 2011 despite foregoing a military response to the 1988 Lockerbie bombing, widely blamed on Kadhafi’s regime.
“Without judging what was done in 1988, what’s changing today is a question about the future of the Arab world,” he said, saying better US ties to the region “can lead to a much more peaceful and stable world.”
Durbin said he would support holding a formal congressional debate and vote on supporting US efforts in Libya, but stopped short of saying he would seek to start that process himself.
On the same conference call, Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin, also a Democrat, said seeing Kadhafi leave power was “a long-term goal, hopefully not too long-term, but an important goal.”
At the White House, top Obama aides held a one-hour briefing for outside foreign policy experts, telling them the strikes may have averted the massacre of up to 100,000 people, one attendee told AFP on condition of anonymity.
Top Obama Middle East adviser Dennis Ross told the group: “We were looking at ‘Srebrenica on steroids’ — the real or imminent possibility that up to 100,000 people could be massacred, and everyone would blame us for it,” the source said.
The briefing included officials from the Pentagon, State Department and US Treasury, said one of the guests, confirming a report on the Yahoo new blog “The Envoy” about the confidential session.
The military officials said the US pullback to a supporting role in enforcing the UN-approved no-fly zone over Libya would be “disciplined and determined, because the president is demanding it,” said the attendee.
“The military guys were honest that that the United States would continue to have a behind-the-scenes hand in daily operations,” because Washington has the most solid commander and control coordination capabilities, said the attendee.
Obama, who cut a few hours off a Latin America tour amid the crisis, has drawn fire for offering no formal cost estimate for the operations and staying vague about the US “exit strategy.”
Republican and Democratic lawmakers have complained that Obama should have secured explicit US Congress approval before launching the operation, and worried about what they have described as a costly, open-ended intervention.
“It is my hope that you will provide the American people and Congress a clear and robust assessment of the scope, objective, and purpose of our mission in Libya and how it will be achieved,” said Boehner.