The U.S. State Department signed off on and supports Sen. John McCain’s (R-AZ) Friday trip to Libya where he met with rebel forces engaged in a fierce battle with Muammar Qaddafi over control of the country.
“We were aware that Sen. McCain would be making the trip and State supported the codel,” White House spokesman Jay Carney told TPM in an e-mail Friday afternoon.
When asked whether McCain was there as an official emissary for the State Department or White House, Carney told reporters earlier only: “No. No that I’m aware of.”
An early proponent of U.S. military strikes in Libya, McCain arrived in the country Friday just hours before Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the U.S. military’s joint chiefs of staff, publicly warned that the conflict was moving into a stalemate as Qaddafi’s troops pressed on in an attempt to take back the rebel-controlled areas in Misrata.
Qaddafi remains in power weeks after the U.S. and NATO forces first launched military strikes, and the clash between the regime’s military and the opposition has continued without an end in sight.
McCain, Obama’s defeated 2008 presidential opponent, has used his position as ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee to harshly criticize the administration’s delays and time spent aligning international support for military action at the United Nations and NATO before acting. He has strongly backed Obama’s decision to authorize air strikes but has expressed deep concerns about the President’s decision to have the U.S. military step back after the first two weeks of bombing and hand over leading control of the military mission to NATO forces.
During a trip to the rebel stronghold of Benghazi, McCain met with Libya Transitional National Council President Mustafa Abdel Jalil, other Council leaders, as well as special envoys form the U.S., France, Great Britain, Denmark, Turkey and Italy.
He repeatedly heralded the courage of rebel forces’ struggle for liberation and broadly declared them al Qaeda-free.
“I have met with these brave fighters, and they are not Al-Qaeda,” he said. “To the contrary: They are Libyan patriots who want to liberate their nation. We should help them do it.”
The trip was clearly emotional for McCain, who called his encounters awe-inspiring, and at one point hailed rebel forces as “heroes.”
“I want to thank President Jalil and the rest of the Transitional National Council for making this one of the most exciting and inspiring days of my life,” he said.
“What I have witnessed today in Benghazi is a powerful and hopeful example of what a free Libya could be — a place where the dignity and the desires of all people for freedom and opportunity are respected,” he said.
If Obama and U.S. allies had not acted, he said the citizens of Benghazi would have been subject to mass atrocities. While he supports Obama’s intervention and applauded him for providing $25 million more in humanitarian aid, McCain said the U.S. and NATO air campaign “desperately” needs to step up and send in planes that can target Qaddafi’s forces more precisely.
“We need to urgently step up the NATO air campaign to protect Libyan civilians, especially in Misurata,” he said. “We desperately need more close air-support and precision strike assets — such as A-10s and AC-130s. And I applaud Secretary Gates’ decision to use Predator aircraft to help in this effort. We can better identify and destroy Qaddafi’s forces as they seek to conceal themselves in civilian areas.”
He also used the trip to call on every nation, including the United States, to recognize the rebel’s Transitional National Council in Libya as the “legitimate voice” of the Libyan people and to release some of the money frozen from Qaddafi’s assets to the Transitional National Council.
McCain urged the U.S. and its allies to provide “every appropriate means of assistance” to the opposition forces, including “command-and-control support, battlefield intelligence, training, and weapons.”
Defense Secretary Robert Gates on Thursday approved the use of armed drones to help NATO efforts to stop the regime’s attacks on rebel forces although by late Friday bad weather already had forced two of the drones to turn back.
“We have prevented the worst outcome in Libya. Now we need to increase our support so that the Libyan people can achieve the only satisfactory outcome to this mass protest for universal rights: the end of Qaddafi’s rule and the beginning of a peaceful and inclusive transition to democracy that will benefit all Libyans,” McCain said.