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Aside from humanitarian supplies and such non-lethal aid, NATO can do little to augment what the rebels can scrounge from captured government supplies, or make on their own. In fact, their own resources are being strained to near breaking. They are becoming more dependent on the United States for precision guided munitions and even their stockpile of conventional bombs is running low.
Then there is the strain on the national budgets of Britain and France. The war will cost Britain $1.5 billion by September at a time when the government of David Cameron is making large cuts in social service programs. And while the war flies largely below the media radar — and will probably continue to do so as long as there are few casualties — there is the real possibility that opposition to the conflict will manifest itself in both countries unless a victory can be achieved soon.
These strains have also affected the alliance as a whole. There is widespread agreement among both analysts and military experts within NATO that there is a crisis of resources largely because of a lack of participation in combat operations from several alliance nations that are perfectly capable of contributing but are refusing to do so. US Defense Secretary Robert Gates gave a withering critique of this lack of support in his speech in Brussels recently. There have also been warnings from the naval chiefs of Great Britain and France that they will not be able to sustain the same level of commitment to the operation unless the conflict can be ended before the end of the year.
Even the general in charge of NATO logistics, Stéphane Abrial, has said that the “resource issue will become critical” if Gaddafi can’t be defeated soon. As Gates mentioned in his speech, the alliance is running out of munitions after only 11 weeks of combat. This compares unfavorably to the Kosovo operation where after the same number of days, NATO has flown only one third the number of sorties and hit just a fraction of the targets.
Gates has singled out Germany, Poland, Spain, the Netherlands, and Portugal for not doing their part in Libya. But the same could easily be said about the United States. The US now has the USS George H.W. Bush carrier battle group in the Mediterranean Sea off the Libyan coast as well as other nearby assets that could blanket Libya with the most sophisticated combat aircraft in the world.
But the president has chosen to “lead from behind” in this NATO operation and nothing appears ready to change his mind. Even the limited combat role he has chosen for US forces is drawing fire from Congress, largely because the president refuses to keep lawmakers informed of what we’re doing, and continues to insist that he can unilaterally take the country to war without congressional authorization.
In response to a letter sent on Tuesday from Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) asking the president to comply with the resolution passed by the House two weeks ago requesting a legal justification for the war, the president sent a 38 page document to Boehner that was full of obfuscation and evasion.
The White House reasoning was, in part:
Since April 4, U.S. participation has consisted of: (1) non-kinetic support to the NATO-led operation, including intelligence, logistical support, and search and rescue assistance; (2) aircraft that have assisted in the suppression and destruction of air defenses in support of the no-fly zone; and (3) since April 23, precision strikes by unmanned aerial vehicles against a limited set of clearly defined targets in support of the NATO-led coalition’s efforts.
Conor Freidersdorf of The Atlantic points out the fallacy in Obama’s argument:
Imagine that a country launched a series of bombing attacks on the US to force one of our presidents from office, and that a second country provided millions of dollars in munitions, fired missiles at our cities via unmanned drones, and refueled the planes of our primary attacker so that they could bomb us more frequently. Would anyone doubt whether that second country was at war with us?
State Department legal counsel Harold Koh claims that all of these actions by the US military constitute us engaging in “limited hostilities” and therefore, the War Powers Act does not apply.
This was too much for Boehner, who is now threatening a cut-off funding for the Libyan operation. This is not likely to succeed because any such bill would have to go through the Democratic Senate and be signed by Obama himself — not a realistic scenario. The president — as all presidents before him — has the whip hand in any battle between the legislative and executive branches when it comes to defining his role as commander in chief. Not even the lawsuit brought by a bipartisan group of House members asking the courts to enforce the War Powers Act will have much of an impact. If history is any guide, the reluctance of the judicial branch to involve itself in the internecine battles between the other two branches of government will rule the day and the suit will be dismissed.
None of this changes what is happening on the ground in Libya. Gaddafi may be losing his iron grip in some places, but there is no sign he is ready or willing to leave anytime soon. That spells trouble for NATO, the president, and the people of Libya who are helpless as NATO planes and Gaddafi’s artillery level their homes, destroy their cities, and cause a grievous amount of suffering by the same innocents that NATO was supposed to protect.
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