Obama faces fire from both sides in Libyan intervention

The fact that Washington has not applied past lessons from the Iraq War to the current intervention in Libya is deeply troubling.

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For weeks, President Barack Obama faced a barrage of criticism from Republicans over his administration's failure to intervene in Libya's ongoing conflict. The GOP's assault accused the president of "weakness", "dithering" and "a lack of leadership". But, coming from the same cast of characters who recklessly led us into Iraq, those attacks could be dismissed as partisan rhetoric.

Then, in what appeared to be an about-face, the administration moved quickly to press for a United Nations Security Council resolution calling for a "no-fly zone plus" intervention in Libya. Citing "imminent humanitarian concern", a US-led effort launched attacks against Libyan air defences and ground forces that were advancing on rebel-held cities.

As the bombing of Libya began, Mr Obama left Washington on a scheduled trade mission to several Central and South American countries. After attempting to manage the conflicting messages about the trade visit and unfolding events in Libya, Mr Obama cut short his trip and returned to face his critics in Congress and political opponents on the right. Some of the concerns raised in Congress were legitimate, others downright kooky, but all should be addressed.

One of the strongest arguments was that the no-fly zone is too little, too late. This is a continuation of the partisan attack against Mr Obama that preceded hostilities.

When Republican John McCain complained that Mr Obama "waited too long [and he regretted] that we didn't act much more quickly", and when Lindsey Graham, also a Republican, bristled that "we're taking a backseat rather than a leadership role", both were ignoring post-Iraq realities in the Middle East. Concerned that the US could not militarily engage another Arab country without regional support, Mr Obama rightly waited until the Arab League passed its resolution calling for a no-fly zone before seeking UN authorisation.

And those GOP hawks who have upped the ante, arguing that unless "the US takes Qaddafi out", the mission is a failure, are likewise treading on dangerous ground. Right-wing hawks may miss the days when America fashioned itself as the "white knight" of international affairs, but George W Bush has long since tarnished that reputation.

But opponents to intervention in Libya include those on the left of the aisle. Still chafing over two expensive, failed wars and budget cuts to social programmes, there is a brewing revolt in the progressive wing of the Democratic Party. A Congressional group met last week and made clear their concern about beginning a "third Middle East war", echoing Democrat Dennis Kucinich's statement that "we have money for endless wars, and can't take care of things at home".

There was no prior Congressional approval of intervention. As a candidate for president, Mr Obama was quite clear that the constitution required that US military engagement be authorised by Congress. In the current situation, the White House has argued that because Congress was notified and because the action is of limited duration, the administration does not need specific authorisation. It's not a popular argument in Washington.

Republican John Boehner, the Speaker of the House, raised this concern last week, saying the House majority is "troubled that US military resources were committed to war without clearly defining ... what the mission is". More ominous for the White House was the apparent concurrence of the Democratic minority whip Steny Hoyer, who said: "I don't think there was a lot of consultation."

Pushing both leaders will be their rank-and-file members who are more inclined to stand on principle. Republican Justin Amash, a favourite of the Tea Party, made a strong constitutional case for a Congressional role, while Mr Kucinich asked whether Mr Obama had committed an impeachable offence by bypassing Congress.

An additional concern is the question of what US interests are at stake justifying involvement. Republican Scott Rigell, for example, said: "American lives were not at risk ... and Libya was not a material threat to the US." Republican Candace Miller asked: "What's the vital US interest? How much will it cost? How do you define success?"

Mr Obama's critics have a point. Fundamental questions about why the US is fighting and who it is fighting for should have been discussed from the beginning. Now, they are still unanswered.

Perhaps the strongest concern is the perceived vagueness about the plan, commitment and outcome of the engagement. The senior Republican foreign policy leader, Richard Lugar, complained: "The plan is simply not there. The objectives, the end game is not apparent." And Democrat Jim McGovern expressed the concerns of many: "I have this feeling of uneasiness because of the lack of clarity."

In the lead-up to the Iraq War, I pressed the Democratic Party to pass a resolution opposing the war unless Mr Bush defined "the costs, consequences and terms of commitment". I also cautioned that "we should never consider military engagement in a country whose people, history and culture we do not know". Efforts to stop that war failed and the results are still with us.

The same questions that should have been dealt with before we invaded Iraq should also have been asked and answered before hostilities began with Libya. The fact that they were not, and that lessons have not been learnt, is deeply troubling.

James Zogby is the president of the Arab American Institute