House Speaker John Boehner was as good as his word Friday -- he held back Rep. Dennis Kucinich's proposed resolution calling for the U.S. to withdraw from the Libya intervention but substituted one of his own, ordering President Obama to "explain" his goals for the operation. It passed. This enables House opponents to be on record challenging the president, but also protects their right flank by permitting the operation to continue.
Republicans used to love portraying themselves as the hard-headed, grown-up party of defense and national security, but now they're evidently confused and need Obama to spell out why America has an interest in supporting the Libyan rebellion. Democrats, including the president, spent years faulting the invasion of Iraq as a needless, costly "war of choice," and yet Obama committed American forces on day one to help a rebellion whose composition even his top officials don't really understand. No wonder Americans hate politics.
Inside Washington, the final political victory on Libya is still to be won. It'll depend on how long dictator Moammar Qaddafi remains in power. The longer the NATO intervention takes place, the worse things get for Obama -- although he is much less exposed politically than he might have been if American forces were more heavily involved. (As it stands, the U.S. "war" in Libya consists of arms sales, tanker flights over the Mediterranean, and unmanned Predator orbits.) But if Qaddafi is overthrown in the next few months, even by rebels with direct support from NATO, Obama will have a foreign policy feather in his cap. He and Democratic allies will be able to try to force Republicans to say they preferred Libya when Qaddafi was in charge -- which they won't, which is why Boehner has been so careful this week about where he positions himself on all this.
The other factor, of course, is the budget. A study last week by the National Priorities Project concluded that Congress will have approved spending $1.26 trillion on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan by the end of the fiscal year, but in Austerity America, politicians now count pennies. Here's how Bloomberg's James Rowley characterized it today:
Impatience with foreign U.S. military involvement also surfaced last week in the narrow margin -- 204 in favor, 215 against -- of the House defeat of an amendment that would have directed Obama to submit an accelerated timetable for withdrawing U.S. troops from Afghanistan. A combination of “war fatigue” plus many members “having trouble seeing what we are doing in Libya” forced the issue to the floor, Ohio Republican Steve LaTourette said in an interview ...So even though Obama's strategy on Libya was always carefully calculated to avoid what he believed were the biggest political potholes -- lack of international support and U.S. troops on the ground -- the road may have taken a turn that he didn't expect.
Massachusetts Democrat Barney Frank said the “increasing recognition that reducing military expenditures is essential to overall deficit reduction” has prompted a rethinking of foreign military missions.
“The public is ready for a sensible recalculation of what America should and shouldn’t be doing internationally and militarily,” Frank said.