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White House Stands By U.S. Military Mission In Libya


It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.


And I'm Renee Montagne.

The White House is defending the U.S. military mission in Libya against growing disapproval from Congress. Yesterday, the administration sent a report to Capitol Hill in response to questions about whether President Obama is in compliance with the War Powers Act.

NPR's national political correspondent Mara Liasson reports the debate about Libya is exposing some unusual shifts on foreign policy among Republicans.

MARA LIASSON: The 40-page White House report was in response to a warning from House Speaker John Boehner that if the president didn't seek authorization for the Libya mission this week, he would be in violation of the War Powers Act. In the past, Boehner himself has questioned the law's constitutionality. In 1999, he said that the War Powers Act ties the hands of the commander-in-chief.

This is a familiar pattern: Democrats talk about the War Powers Act when there's a Republican president, and Republicans find a new respect for the law when there's a Democrat in the White House. Here's foreign policy expert Danielle Pletka.

Ms. DANIELLE PLETKA (Vice President, American Enterprise Institute): It is a partisan tool. There's no question. But nobody actually has the courage of their convictions. You don't see legislation brought to the floor under War Powers passing, and you don't see Congress actually using its true power, the power of the purse, to defund ongoing military operations. And that's the real test.

LIASSON: Yesterday at the White House, top officials said the act did not apply to the Libya operation, but even so, it had complied with the letter and spirit of the law. At the daily briefing, Press Secretary Jay Carney fielded questions like this.

Unidentified Man: In compliance with the War Powers resolution, will the president begin withdrawal of American troops in the action against Libya this weekend, after the 90-day period is up?

Mr. JAY CARNEY (White House Press Secretary): First of all, as you know, there are no forces to withdraw from Libya. Let's just make that clear. Secondly, the president has acted, you know, in a manner that's consistent with the War Powers resolution.

LIASSON: The debate about Libya reveals something more than just the perennial wrangling between the president and Congress over war powers. There's a sea change underway inside the Republican Party. In Congress, the new Tea Party caucus is skeptical of U.S. military intervention, and on the campaign trail, the traditional support for aggressive U.S. action abroad is being eroded by a new isolationism. You could hear it at Monday night's GOP candidates' debate.

Representative MICHELE BACHMANN (Republican, Minnesota): The president was wrong.

LIASSON: That's Michele Bachmann.

Ms. BACHMANN: First of all, we were not attacked. We were not threatened with attack. There was no vital national interest.

LIASSON: Bachmann's view was echoed by Newt Gingrich.

Mr. NEWT GINGRICH (Former Speaker of the House, Republican, Georgia): I think that we need to think fundamentally about reassessing our entire strategy in the region. I think that we should say to the generals, we would like to figure out how to get out as rapidly as possible, with the safety of the troops involved.

LIASSON: Isolationism in the Republican field is no longer confined to Ron Paul. Even establishment candidates, like Jon Huntsman, said we shouldn't have intervened in Libya because, quote, "We just can't afford it." And when it comes to Afghanistan, the uber-establishment candidate, Mitt Romney, sounded a little like a dove.

Mr. MITT ROMNEY (Former Republican Governor, Massachusetts): It's time for us to bring our troops home as soon as we possibly can, consistent with the word that comes from our generals that we can hand the country over.

LIASSON: And Romney went on.

Mr. ROMNEY: We've learned that our troops shouldn't go off and try and fight a war of independence for another nation.

LIASSON: Romney's remarks surprised hawks like Danielle Pletka, who's the vice president of the American Enterprise Institute.

Ms. PLETKA: I really have always thought of him as the traditional GOP candidate: business background, fiscal conservative, tough on national security and clear-spoken about American greatness and American leadership. And yet he gave a muddled answer on a question about Afghanistan and seemed to imply that we needed to get our troops out right away.

LIASSON: For Pletka, this new tone from all points on the Republican spectrum raises a question.

Ms. PLETKA: Does Republican isolationism, or even a whisper of Republican isolationism help the president? And the answer to that is only if the president wants to be helped. And the oddest thing about this president that even though he seems to have made some very tough, important decisions on national security, whether it was staying in Iraq, the surge in Afghanistan, intervening in Libya, he doesn't seem to want to talk about those things or defend those things or explain to the American people why he's doing them.

LIASSON: And so, suggests Pletka, President Obama may end up failing to take advantage of the new foreign policy squishiness in the Republican Party.

Mara Liasson, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mara Liasson is a national political correspondent for NPR. Her reports can be heard regularly on NPR's award-winning newsmagazine programs Morning Edition and All Things Considered. Liasson provides extensive coverage of politics and policy from Washington, DC — focusing on the White House and Congress — and also reports on political trends beyond the Beltway.