Congress Questions Obama On Libya Mission

Lawmakers in Washington, led by House Speaker John Boehner, are pressing President Obama to clarify the U.S' role in Libya. Boehner wants to know what the objective of the Libya mission is and how much it will cost. How will U.S intervention in that conflict affect the White House's relationship with Congress? In Tell Me More's weekly "Political Chat", guest host Jacki Lyden discusses the issue with Cynthia Tucker, columnist and blogger for the Atlanta Journal Constitution and Mary Kate Cary, columnist and blogger for U.S. News and World Report.

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JACKI LYDEN, host:

I'm Jacki Lyden, and this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. Michele Martin is away.

One hundred years ago today, a massive fire tore through the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in New York City. One hundred and forty-six people died, and the tragedy prompted changes in labor law and politics, changes that still resonate today. We'll talk more about that in a few minutes. But first, the political chat.

And we want to delve into the U.S. military action in Libya. NATO is preparing to take over leadership from the U.S. on that campaign against Moammar Gadhafi - possibly Sunday or Monday - and it will now have help from the United Arab Emirates. That country today agreed to add a dozen of its war planes to the effort.

The news comes as a number of Washington lawmakers are pressing the White House for answers about the U.S. role in Libya, and how much it's going to cost. Joining me to talk more about this and other news is Mary Kate Cary, a former speechwriter for former President George H.W. Bush who's now a columnist and blogger for U.S. News and World Report.

Welcome.

Ms. MARY KATE CARY (Columnist and Blogger, U.S. News and World Report): Thank you.

LYDEN: And also Cynthia Tucker, columnist and blogger for the Atlanta Journal Constitution.

Welcome to you.

Ms. CYNTHIA TUCKER (Columnist, Blogger, Atlanta Journal Constitution): Thank you.

LYDEN: And both of you are in the studio with me here in Washington, of course. Now, ladies, lawmakers from both sides are asking questions about the Libya mission and basically what the end game is, what it's supposed to accomplish, the wisdom of getting in in the first place.

Cynthia, could you delve into that a little bit for us?

Ms. TUCKER: Well, there was a bit of curious timing as the U.S. started this -led this military intervention in Libya. Just after the president announced that the U.S. would participate after a U.N.-approved resolution, the president left the country for a long-scheduled trip to South America, including Brazil.

So he left without setting the stage to Congress that the U.S. would lead this effort. And so now, yes, he's facing a barrage of questions, many of which are quite legitimate. Speaker of the House John Boehner wrote him a letter, asking a series of questions about what the strategy is, what the mission is, what the endgame is and how the U.S. is going to pay for it. And these are all legitimate questions.

Some people are concerned that the U.S., quite frankly, didn't act soon enough, that there is this multilateral effort that seems a little unwieldy. Let me say that I was a skeptic about this Libya intervention, but if we were going to intervene, I think a multilateral action was the only way to go - no more cowboy unilateral missions.

LYDEN: Mm-hmm. But because the president left, Mary Kate, others have filled the vacuum in terms of defining the U.S. role, obviously. The president's back in town now, but hasn't faced down the critics yet. And they're on both sides.

Ms. CARY: Right. There's a lot of confusion on all sides. Different people all have different takes on it. I actually thought Boehner's letter was quite comprehensive, asked great questions. Most of the Democrats in town agreed with his questions. It was the far left that really wasn't as polite as Congressman Boehner was.

But, you know, what I go back to is what I know, which is how 41 - Bush 41 handled it, you know, during the Kuwaiti crisis.

LYDEN: Because you were there.

Ms. CARY: Because I was there. And what he did was he got the U.N. Security Council resolution, just like Obama did, but then he built a coalition of 134 nations, which was pretty amazing compared to what we've got standing with us right now.

He then went to the Senate. He got a 52-48 vote in the Senate, and he had multiple addresses to the American people. And I think he's getting there. We've scheduled a briefing - apparently, for next week on Wednesday - with Hillary Rodham Clinton, Bob Gates and Admiral Mullen to brief the top members of Congress, which I think is great. That seems like it's a response to Boehner's letter.

And - but I think he's got to address the people.

LYDEN: But, you know, I was there, too, and I remember the way we would write about that U.S.-led coalition.

Ms. CARY: Correct.

LYDEN: And that is going to be different, isn't it, if - when this is handed off to NATO. Or it's supposed to be (unintelligible).

Ms. TUCKER: It will be handed off to NATO. President Obama is very eager to get the U.S. out of the front seat on this intervention.

Ms. CARY: You know, I saw a great line.

(Soundbite of laughter)

LYDEN: Yeah?

Ms. CARY: We've got the rent-a-car. We want to return it, and nobody will take the keys.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. TUCKER: Uh-huh. And that's - that is, unfortunately, a little the way that this has looked, particularly from the outside looking in. Let me say, though, I think the comparison to the original mission in Iraq, the first Gulf War, is a bit flawed for this reason: That was an all-out war with ground troops.

LYDEN: Mm-hmm.

Ms. CARY: True.

Ms. TUCKER: When the clamor began for U.S. intervention, it was because Moammar Gadhafi was using mercenaries from sub-Saharan African countries to slaughter his own people. Rebels were rising up against him, trying to push him out of power. He was using the full force of the Libyan military and mercenaries to slaughter those folks.

People were clamoring for immediate U.S. intervention. If Obama had - it was already time consuming to get the U.N. on board.

LYDEN: Mm-hmm.

Ms. TUCKER: If he had taken the time for a Congressional authorization, Gadhafi would have already slaughtered thousands. And let me just say that this was a no-win situation for President Obama. If he had not acted, the criticism would be even more vociferous because we would be looking at a humanitarian crisis in Libya.

LYDEN: Well, you're making me think of the phrase: Fill in the blank if you do, fill in the blank if you don't.

Ms. TUCKER: Exactly.

(Soundbite of laughter)

LYDEN: There may be a bit of that, but there is, of course, the cost at a time when Congress is concentrating, if you will, on cost savings.

Ms. TUCKER: I agree completely, and that was one of the reasons for my skepticism about this mission. My skepticism was based on two things - and, you know, I'm not an expert on the Middle East. But I do know the U.S. military is already overstretched with two full-out wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

I also know that the U.S. budget is overstretched. We're cutting Head Start. We're cutting aid to people who have trouble paying their heating bills in the winter. We're talking about cutting health care for poor people. States are cutting back Medicaid. At a time when we need to do some nation building in the United States, I'm very skeptical. And I think that people who were pushing for an intervention - forget about the costs, both in terms of human life.

LYDEN: Mm-hmm.

Ms. TUCKER: A no-fly zone sounds easy to do, but it still involves actual pilots who could be shot down. And those tomahawk missiles are extremely expensive.

LYDEN: Mm-hmm. And, of course, so few people have direct involvement...

Ms. TUCKER: Exactly.

LYDEN: ...in the U.S. military at this time. I don't want to leave this topic without saying just a word - although it's been booted about here in D.C. a lot, perhaps not more - the rise of the powerful women. I think I even saw Maureen Dowd column, "The Rise of the Valkyries." And we're referring, of course, to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice, and National Security Council staffer Samantha Power.

All three of these women saying: Guys, you've got to go and help those people -if I'm not oversimplifying too much. Mary Kate?

Ms. CARY: My reaction to it was that it was interesting, but not important. And I think that as more and more women get to the top of the foreign policy apparatus, we won't have stories like this, because it'll just become, you know, the way it should be.

Ms. TUCKER: That was my reaction, too.

Ms. CARY: Yeah. Why is this a story? And I do think - I saw one interesting comment by a gentleman, Matt Pottinger, who's at the Council on Foreign Relations. He was saying that since World War II, there are fewer and fewer veterans who are at the top of the executive and legislative branches making military policy and foreign policy, and that it's his observation that the more hawkish you are, the chances are that you did not actually fight in combat yourself.

And I think one of the things about these women is that none of them had ever been in the military, and maybe that's driving some of this too, regardless of the fact that they're women.

LYDEN: Let me just say once again this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News, and we're in the midst of this program's weekly political chat with Mary Kate Cary, columnist and blogger for U.S. News and World Report, and with Cynthia Tucker, columnist and blogger for the Atlanta Journal Constitution.

I really don't want to get out of this chat without taking about these numbers coming out the census this week. And there's some really fascinating things happening even right here in Washington D.C., Cynthia. You've now been here a while from the south, tell us about the population of African-Americans is shrinking in the city.

Ms. TUCKER: Well, the demographic news coming out of the census is absolutely fascinating on several counts. And it has shown among other things that center cities in many places are gaining members of the white middle class. And this is the reverse of what happened from the late '60s through the '90s.

Washington D.C. and Atlanta, Georgia used to be overwhelmingly black cities, chocolate cities in popular culture terms, and now they have gained white residents - so many white residents in Washington that there is rough racial parity here. Atlanta not quite racial parity, but the black population is somewhere between 55 and 60 percent now, when it used to be closer to 70 percent. That is a huge change. And both these cities I predict will have white mayors in the next decade.

LYDEN: We're going to talk more about this later in the show, but of course the huge rise of Hispanic Americans. And, Mary Kate, just say something about Detroit losing 25 percent of its population.

Ms. CARY: Detroit, you know, the statistics I saw, somebody was moving out of Detroit one every 20 minutes over the last decade. That is just shocking to me. They lost 200,000 people since the last census, and it rivals New Orleans for having the most exodus. They've lost a congressional seat as opposed to say Atlanta, which I think is going to gain one for the Hispanics.

And I read a lot of commentary this week from inside Detroit, and their feeling is they've hit rock bottom, no place to go but up. They've got a new mayor, they've got a new governor, new leadership of the auto companies, and the Detroit Redwings are no longer the Detroit Dead Things. They've come back, the Tigers made it to the World Series.

LYDEN: We're going to wish them all luck.

Ms. CARY: The Motor City is coming back.

LYDEN: Absolutely. All right. Thanks so much. Mary Kate Cary is a columnist and blogger for U.S. News and World Report, and Cynthia Tucker is columnist and blogger for the Atlanta Journal Constitution. Thank you so much for joining me in Washington.

Ms. CARY: Thank you.

Ms. TUCKER: Thanks.

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