Defense Secretary Robert Gates endured nearly six hours of grilling from Congress Thursday, with the most combative questioning coming from — surprisingly — Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) and a group of Senate hawks on the Armed Services Committee who support military intervention in Libya.
McCain expressed grave disappointment about the decision to have the U.S. military forces step aside and allow NATO to take control before Muammar Qaddafi has been toppled from power.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) asked why the U.S. couldn’t simply bomb Qaddafi like President Reagan tried to do in 1986 when he sent cruise missiles into the Libyan leader’s palace, killing one of his daughters, and Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) said rebel setbacks over the last two days have been “unsettling.”
“Hope is not a strategy,” McCain said, repeating one of his favorite phrases, adding that the U.S. should not have drawn back its leadership role in the military mission until our policy goal of removing Qaddafi from power was met.
“I know the U.S. military has a heavy load on its back right now … but we must not fail in Libya, and I say this as someone who is familiar with the consequence of a lost conflict,” he said.
Gates had endured a full session of grilling by the House Armed Services Committee over critics views that the White House is violating the War Powers Act by not consulting more closely with Congress and failing to seek a resolution to authorize force before launching air strikes. He was visually exhausted by the onslaught of questions and haltingly explained that the U.S. air forces are on “stand-by” in case it became “apparent” that the NATO coalition was not able to get the job done.
When it was Graham’s turn to question Gates and Mullens, he said he was more “depressed than he has ever been” about the plan in Libya.
“When we called for a no-fly zone, we didn’t mean our people,” Graham said. “That we’re grounded unless the whole place goes to hell … is just so unnerving.”
Calling Gates and Mullen “friends,” he warned the pair that they were on shaky ground with their Libya policy with many members of the Senate and even those who would normally be inclined to support military intervention in Libya.
“You need to come here a little more decisive,” he said, “Or it’s going to be really difficult to approve the plan as it is.”
Noting that Sen. Carl Levin (D-MI), the panel’s chairman, was drafting legislation authorizing the military action in Libya, Graham asked what would happen if such a resolution would fail to win Senate approval.
“It would obviously send a negative signal to our allies and a positive signal to Qaddafi,” Gates responded before Graham cut him off.
“It would be a disaster,” Graham interjected.
Graham then pivoted to pointedly ask why the U.S. wasn’t trying to bomb Qaddafi outright.
“President Reagan tried that…,” Gates said.
“It doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try again,” Graham retorted. “I don’t think this man is the legitimate leader of the Libyan people. We are within our bounds to take the fight to him and his cadre of supporters.”
“Who would be mad at us and why would they be mad if we dropped a bomb on Qaddafi?” Graham challenged. “Would anybody in Europe be upset if Qaddafi were killed?”
Since Graham didn’t listen for a response, the question turned into more of a statement and an attempt to urge the administration to exercise the mission more aggressively.
Other Republicans and Democrats worried about the endgame in Libya, what the U.S. would do if Qaddafi manages to stick around for weeks and months on end, and whether the U.S. had any contingency plans for helping to build a functioning government in the heavily tribal North African nation if and when Qaddafi falls.
“Are we going to try to get him out of Libya and have him tried by the international criminal court?” asked Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME). “If he knows that’s the consequences, he’s never going to voluntarily leave anyway. How are we gong to bring this to closure … I just don’t see how this ends.”
Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-MO) showed up just before the hearing ended but asked the question likely on most people’s minds who lived through the U.S. “regime change” in Iraq.
“Assuming that we’re going to be optimistic here … and Qaddafi leaves quickly, has NATO talked about what happens in the interim?” she asked.
“Do we think the interim provisional council in Benghazi is capable of governing?”
Gates was terse but direct in his reply, but the answer was equally startling.
“Their governance capability is limited, if not non-existent,” he said.