The Senate’s Symbolic Gift

By Miryam Ehrlich Williamson

It’s barely likely that any American who’s been paying attention to events surrounding this business in Libya is surprised at the scope creep that is taking place before our eyes. (“Scope creep” describes how a task you’ve agreed to do grows larger once you’re shaken hands and pocketed the check.)

First came the “no-fly zone,” which sounds to the uninitiated as though somebody’s aircraft will keep the aircraft of the country that’s not allowed to fly from getting airborne, the “somebody” in this case being mainly the US, wearing NATO as a fig leaf.

But Secretary of Defense Robert Gates warned us that a no-fly zone over Libya would have to begin with an attack on that North African country, meant to destroy its anti-aircraft weapons. So within hours of the initiation of the no-fly zone, we had no-fly plus bombing of military targets.

We were told that the expedition was for humanitarian purposes, to protect innocent civilians from being massacred – although there was no evidence to support that aside from Moammar Quaddafi, the Libyan despot, warning the armed rebels that they would be sought out in their houses, and in their closets, and destroyed.

Then we heard both the President and the Secretary of State say that Qaddafi must step down, with the implied “or else” left hanging in the air.

Now we have CIA agents on the ground with GPS devices, sending back coordinates to precision missile launchers so they can take out Qaddafi’s troops – who, we are told, are hiding among civilians.

There’s your classic mission creep, and we’re still shy of two weeks after the first planes took off for Libyan air space.

I dread reading about how the missiles missed the troops and got the civilians, but we’ve seen such “oops” moments in Iraq and Afghanistan and I can’t imagine that we won’t see them again – on Al Jazeera TV, if not on America’s broadcast networks. (If you want even-handed reporting on what’s happening in Libya, Al Jazeera is the only game in town, and it’s on your computer, not your TV.)

In an earlier essay, I scored President Barack Obama for embarking on a third military adventure giving the Congress a chance to weigh in. I was partly wrong: the Senate has weighed in, giving Obama its approval for the no-fly zone and to unseat Qaddafi as well. And, in a burst of bipartisan comradeship, they did it unanimously. Senators didn’t even have to go to the Senate chamber to indicate their approval, they could do the electronic equivalent of phoning it in.

The measure they approved is Senate Resolution 85, which the title describes as

Strongly condemning the gross and systematic violations of human rights in Libya, including violent attacks on protesters demanding democratic reforms, and for other purposes.

It’s the “other purposes” that concern me.

S. Res. 85 was introduced by Senator Robert Menendez, a Democrat from New Jersey on March 1 and agreed to by unanimous consent the same day. The bill had 10 co-sponsors, all Democrats. You may be surprised by some of the co-sponsors’ names.

Sen Cardin, Benjamin L. [MD]
Sen Casey, Robert P., Jr. [PA]
Sen Durbin, Richard [IL]
Sen Gillibrand, Kirsten E. [NY]
Sen Kirk, Mark Steven [IL]
Sen Lautenberg, Frank R. [NJ]
Sen Sanders, Bernard [VT]
Sen Schumer, Charles E. [NY]
Sen Whitehouse, Sheldon [RI]
Sen Wyden, Ron [OR]

Granted, a Senate resolution is an expression of sentiment, and is not binding. Still, it has a couple of embedded booby traps, and the hands that can spring the traps are those of the President and the Secretary of State.

Like all such resolutions, it begins with a bunch of whereas statements laying out the rationale for what is to come. And that’s this (if you don’t want to read the whole thing, read numbers 7 and 11, which are the potential traps):

Resolved, That the Senate–

(1) applauds the courage of the Libyan people in standing up against the brutal dictatorship of Muammar Gadhafi and for demanding democratic reforms, transparent governance, and respect for basic human and civil rights;

(2) strongly condemns the gross and systematic violations of human rights in Libya, including violent attacks on protesters demanding democratic reforms;

(3) calls on Muammar Gadhafi to desist from further violence, recognize the Libyan people’s demand for democratic change, resign his position and permit a peaceful transition to democracy governed by respect for human and civil rights and the right of the people to choose their government in free and fair elections;

(4) calls on the Gadhafi regime to immediately release persons that have been arbitrarily detained, to cease the intimidation, harassment and detention of peaceful protestors, human rights defenders and journalists, to ensure civilian safety, and to guarantee access to human rights and humanitarian organizations;

(5) welcomes the unanimous vote of the United Nations Security Council on resolution 1970 referring the situation in Libya to the International Criminal Court, imposing an arms embargo on the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya, freezing the assets of Gadhafi and family members, and banning international travel by Gadhafi, members of his family, and senior advisors;

(6) urges the Gadhafi regime to abide by United Nations Security Council Resolution 1970 and ensure the safety of foreign nationals and their assets, and to facilitate the departure of those wishing to leave the country as well as the safe passage of humanitarian and medical supplies, humanitarian agencies and workers, into Libya in order to assist the Libyan people;

(7) urges the United Nations Security Council to take such further action as may be necessary to protect civilians in Libya from attack, including the possible imposition of a no-fly zone over Libyan territory;

(8) welcomes the African Union’s condemnation of the `disproportionate use of force in Libya’ and urges the Union to take action to address the human rights crisis in Libya and to ensure that member states, particularly those bordering Libya, are in full compliance with the arms embargo imposed by United Nations Security Council Resolution 1970 against the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya, including the ban on the provision of armed mercenary personnel;

(9) welcomes the decision of the United Nations Human Rights Council to recommend Libya’s suspension from the Council and urges the United Nations General Assembly to vote to suspend Libya’s rights of membership in the Council;

(10) welcomes the attendance of Secretary of State Clinton at the United Nations Human Rights Council meeting in Geneva and 1) urges the Council’s assumption of a country mandate for Libya that employs a Special Rapporteur on the human rights situation in Libya and 2) urges the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations to advocate for improving United Nations Human Rights Council membership criteria at the next United Nations General Assembly in New York City to exclude gross and systematic violators of human rights; and

(11) welcomes the outreach that has begun by the United States Government to Libyan opposition figures and supports an orderly, irreversible transition to a legitimate democratic government in Libya

Items 7 and 11 are the “other purposes.”

Number 7 gives the administration non-binding approval to establish a no-fly zone, the non-binding part being irrelevant because that’s exactly what the administration wanted to do. Number 11 authorizes, albeit in a non-binding way, the government to help Libyan rebels get rid of Qaddafi in an “orderly, irreversible” manner.

So when the US fouls up the missile attacks on Qaddafi forces and Senators cry foul, Obama and Clinton can say, “You said it was OK.” And if the bombardment of Qaddafi’s residential compound accidentally kills Qaddafi and whoever happens to be with him at the time, whether members of his family or members of his government, and Senators are dismayed, Obama and Clinton can say, “Didn’t you read your own resolution?”

I’ve been on the phone today, trying to reach spokespeople for the 11 Senators who brought this resolution to the floor. I’m especially eager to know whether it was common for a resolution of this weight to be disposed of so quickly and without any discussion at all.

I also called Majority Leader Harry Reid’s office to find out if the timing of this resolution’s introduction and approval wasn’t unusual, given the import. All bills introduced in the senate are first presented for unanimous consent, so that part isn’t noteworthy. It’s the same day thing that makes me wonder, and I want to know as precisely as possible how much time elapsed between the introduction and the non-vote – 8 hours? 4 hours? 5 minutes?

And I called my two senators, John Kerry, chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, and Scott Brown, the only Republican I tried to reach. Kerry’s office called back and put me in touch with a press type for the Foreign Relations committee, who wanted to do some research and said he’ll call me back.

In fairness, I must say that I didn’t give any of the press reps much time. I was hoping to get their answers today, but I’ve worked for a Congressman I know the press aides don’t sit around waiting for bloggers to call. So I’ll repeat my calls tomorrow (Friday, April 1), wait til Monday and then let you know who called back and what they said, and who didn’t choose to answer.

One senator’s press aide did get back to me promptly, by e-mail. I’m not going to say who he works for, at least not until I report on the other senators. I think it’s not fair to punish the one responsive senator for this explanation by his press guy:

[The resolution] was non-binding [and] has nothing more than symbolic effect.

My guess is that since it was non-binding, nobody read it and thought about its possible non-symbolic effect. I’d like to be wrong on this, but I suspect the Senate handed the administration a nifty gift.

Related links:

Let’s Hope the No-Fly Zone Won’t Fly

I Just Don’t Understand

Days of Outrage

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One Response to “The Senate’s Symbolic Gift”

  1. [...] Last week I wrote about the Senate’s gift to President Obama in the form of a unanimous resolution authorizing him to establish a no-fly zone over Libya and do whatever else is necessary to protect the Libyan people.  There’s no point in my repeating the whole thing when you can read it here. [...]

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