McCain: U.S. 'making up reasons' to avoid action on Libya

Jackson Diehl
Copyright 2011
Tuesday, March 1, 2011; 5:41 PM

Fully a week after Libya's delegation to the United Nations first proposed that Western countries impose a no-fly zone in their country, the Obama administration finally has begun discussing it with other NATO governments. But most of the talk seems to be about why it can't happen. Diplomats say NATO won't act to stop Moammar Gaddafi from bombing his own citizens unless the U.N. Security Council passes an authorizing resolution -- and Russia and China will not allow that. Pentagon officials are meanwhile warning that any no-fly operation would require preemptive attacks on Libyan air defenses. At a Senate hearing Tuesday Gen. James Mattis, chief of U.S. Central Command, called the potential mission "challenging" and added, "it would be a military operation -- it wouldn't be just telling people not to fly airplanes." Those comments exasperated Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) a former Navy pilot who, along with Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.), just returned from a tour of the Middle East. "We spend $500 billion on defense, and we can't take down Libyan air defenses?" he asked incredulously in an interview he and Lieberman gave to me and The Post's Fred Hiatt. "You tell those Libyan pilots that there is a no-fly zone, and they are not going to fly." "I think they [in the Obama administration] are making up reasons" not to act, McCain added. "You will always have people who will find out the reasons why you can't do it. But I don't recall Ronald Reagan asking anyone's permission to get Cuba out of Granada, or responding to the killings of American soldiers." Reagan ordered a U.S. airstrike against Libya in 1986 after U.S. soldiers were killed in a Libyan-sponsored bombing in Berlin. McCain and Lieberman proposed a no-fly zone in a press conference last week in Jerusalem, as well a number of other measures to raise the pressure on Gaddafi. Those include the recognition of an alternative government and the delivery of weapons to opposition forces. In the interview with us, Lieberman argued that "we ought to act not just for humanitarian reasons." "Others in the Arab world are watching Gaddafi practice the most grotesque atrocities," he said. "Insofar as we get involved to stop him, the democratic revolutionaries will understand that we are taking their side." Regimes contemplating similar violence to put down protests will, of course, also take note of whether Gaddafi is allowed to succeed. The two senators visited Morocco, Tunisia, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel and Egypt in a whirlwind tour of a region in revolution. Apart from his insistence on the need to act on Libya, McCain said he came away impressed by the importance of whether Egypt's uncertain transition to a new political system succeeds. "We shouldn't understate the importance of Egypt," he said. "It will have a powerful effect on the entire scenario." Lieberman said he was thrilled to the degree that the conversation about Egypt had changed. For years, he pointed out, U.S. administrations had accepted that the choices there were limited to a friendly secular autocracy, or hostile Islamists. "Suddenly there's a third alternative that is democratc and secular," he said. "It's like a gift." Some analysts have been arguing that the Mideast revolts are helping Iran and could eventually play into the hands of Islamic extremists. Lieberman disagrees. "What's happened in Tunisia and Egypt is a powerful repudiation of al Qaeda and Iran," he said. "We have to figure out how to do everything we can to be supportive of a successful transition." McCain was more cautious, saying he was worried about Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood -- "a well-disciplined, well-organized force" that "has been playing this perfectly" so far. Still, he said, "it's not clear how this thing is going to go -- but we have to be optimistic."

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