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As soon as President Obama got back from his trip to Latin America this afternoon, a letter arrived in his inbox, and it was from House Speaker John Boehner.
Boehner had some pointed questions: What is the scope and purpose of the U.S. role in Libya? How soon will the effort be handed over to other nations? And what will it cost?
As NPR's David Welna reports, that long-term price is still unknown.
DAVID WELNA: House Speaker Boehner wrote the president that he supports the troops carrying out the mission in Libya, but he and many other House members were troubled that U.S. resources were committed, as he put it, to war without a clear definition of what the mission is in Libya and what the U.S. role will be in achieving it. Boehner also wanted to know whether the Pentagon has estimated the costs of the mission.
Yesterday in El Salvador, President Obama portrayed the Libya campaign as being within the means of the Pentagon.
President BARACK OBAMA: We will continue to provide details to the American people about the costs of this operation. But because it is limited in time, scope, with a well-defined mission, we're confident that this is something that we can budget as part of our overall operations.
WELNA: This is, after all, not the first time the U.S. has taken the lead in creating a no-fly zone. Back in the Clinton administration, when a no-fly zone was enforced over Iraq, Gordon Adams handled spending on that effort at the White House budget office. The cost of the U.S. action against Libya, he says, pales in comparison to the two other wars the U.S. is still fighting, which together cost more than $300,000 a minute.
Professor GORDON ADAMS (International Relations, School of International Service, American University): This is a lot cheaper than Iraq and Afghanistan. We're flying planes around and shooting bullets. You know, Iraq and Afghanistan is a serious ground combat exercise with a huge supply chain and support chain that it requires. This is operating largely out of existing assets and with existing munitions. So for the moment, it's affordable.
WELNA: Most of the expense so far in Libya will come due later, when the scores of Tomahawk cruise missiles that were launched and a downed F-15 fighter jet have to be replaced.
Dov Zakheim was the Pentagon's comptroller when the U.S. went to war in Afghanistan and Iraq. He says the Pentagon is financing the Libya operation with money earmarked for those wars.
Mr. DOV ZAKHEIM (Former Pentagon Comptroller): It's not clear that if things continue in Afghanistan and Iraq, as they have, and the Libya thing goes on for months instead of weeks, that they can finance it all on their own. Right now, they can do it. How long they can do it for is really a function of the nature of the operation, which is looking pretty open-ended right now.
WELNA: And that's why retired Admiral John Stufflebeem, who once commanded the 6th Fleet in the Mediterranean, thinks anxieties are growing about adding the expense of Libya to that of Iraq and Afghanistan.
Admiral JOHN STUFFLEBEEM (Retired, U.S. Navy): And I'm sure that there are a lot of questions that will come back from the Hill of how long does Department of Defense expect to be in doing this, which is probably why we're all seeing the rhetoric coming from the administration officials that we intend to turn this over relatively quickly.
WELNA: Indeed, Defense Secretary Robert Gates promised in Moscow that other members of the coalition enforcing the no-fly zone will be the ones who keep it going.
Todd Harrison is a defense budget expert at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. He estimates it could cost up to $100 million a week just to maintain the no-fly zone over Libya, an expense he says the Department of Defense can absorb for now.
Mr. TODD HARRISON (Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments): But, you know, depending on how long this goes on, it'll get more and more difficult for DOD to move money between accounts and keep funding this without getting some additional funding from Congress.
WELNA: In his letter today, House Speaker Boehner specifically asked whether President Obama will want Congress to approve funds for the Libya operation.
David Welna, NPR News, the Capitol.
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