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The Policy Racket

Heck takes measured approach to celebrated events in Libya

Joe Heck Veterans Town Hall

Rep. Joe Heck speaks to Veterans at the American Legion Post 40 in Henderson on Wednesday, June 8, 2011.

Had Nevada Rep. Joe Heck had his druthers, things might not have turned out this way.

The world watched over the weekend as Libyan rebels stormed into Tripoli, the capital, with alarming speed, capturing members of dictator Moammar Gadhafi’s family and assuming de facto control over the country’s institutions.

It was an impressive display, especially considering that the rebels’ effort had been creeping along at best for the past six months. Watchers on the ground and experts alike credited the near-victory to two elements: sheer determination and discipline on the part of the rebels, who began their uprising as untrained fighters; and NATO, which has been helping the rebels from air and sea positions since late March.

But Heck is one of several members of Congress whose patience ran out long before — less with the rebels than with President Barack Obama for signing the U.S. up for the NATO mission.

Earlier this summer, Heck introduced a bill to pull the U.S. out of the NATO mission in Libya by cutting off funding for everything short of pulling out.

The reason, he said, was because Obama hadn’t asked Congress for permission to commit the troops, and the clock on his authority to move solo under the War Powers Resolution had run out.

“To date, there has been no clear national security objective articulated,” Heck said of the Libya operation in the statement he released about his bill at the time. “Without a clear national security imperative, we cannot afford the cost in troops or taxpayer dollars. Congress must insist President Obama abide by the law and either articulate a clear U.S. national security imperative for our military action in Libya, or end operations there.”

Heck’s resolution never saw the light of day in Congress — the House took votes on other legislative variations to cut off Libya funding, but none passed. The Senate also considered a bill that would have cut off the president’s right to continue the U.S.’s involvement in the NATO operation after a year, but it never received a vote.

That sort of congressional confusion is nothing out of the ordinary when the country is talking about the nebulous frontier where hostilities become wars.

The War Powers Resolution exists to try to force the president to consult Congress when engaging the armed forces in a war, as he is instructed to do by the Constitution.

But presidents have gotten around that requirement for decades. The U.S. has fought several wars in the past few generations, but no president has actually declared war since Franklin D. Roosevelt, following the bombing of Pearl Harbor, when the U.S. entered the Second World War in 1942.

Under the War Powers Resolution, which was passed in 1973, the president can commit troops for 60 days, with a 30-day extension for exceptional circumstances, but then has to come to Congress to get permission to proceed.

It was when Obama hit the 90-day mark that Heck introduced his bill to cut off funding and bring the troops home.

The Obama administration has insisted all along that the War Powers Resolution didn’t apply to the Libya situation.

Legal arguments aside, the situation on the ground appears to have proved his critics — members of both political parties who blasted him for involving the U.S. in the first place — wrong.

If so, it would be the second high-profile victory for Obama’s foreign policy team this summer, the first being the killing of Osama bin Laden.

But in the wake of Monday’s jubilation, the situation has become less clear in the Libyan capital.

The Transitional National Council and the International Criminal Court both confirmed Gadhafi’s son, Seif al-Islam, who had effectively been running the country though his father remained the official leader, had been captured Sunday. But late Monday, that same son appeared in downtown Tripoli with an armed convoy, telling reporters on the ground that the joyful protesters would be trapped and decimated in Tripoli. He added that the elder Gadhafi remains in Tripoli.

On Monday, Obama administration officials said they believed Gadhafi was still in Libya, but had no information as to where he might be.

While other lawmakers celebrated the apparent gains on Monday, Heck’s team would only call for caution.

“With his positions on the armed services and intelligence committees, Congressman Heck is following events as they develop,” said Heck spokesman Darren Littell. “(He) recognizes that a great degree of uncertainty still surrounds the situation.”

Even before reports of Seif al-Islam’s capture were debunked, officials were stopping short of claiming the mission a success. Officials are watching Libya closely to ensure that Gadhafi loyalists don’t wage some sort of counteroffensive against the rebels; there are also concerns that under the Transitional National Council, Libya could still descend into chaos.

The country is decentralized Gadhafi himself capitalized on tribal rivalries to maintain his power — and military-grade weapons are widespread. Libyans celebrating their all-but liberation in Benghazi and Tripoli fired AK-47s into the air; a very different street scene than when Hosni Mubarak fell in Egypt, where celebrating protesters weren’t armed.

Still, on Monday, other lawmakers had warm words for the Obama’s operation.

“I commend the president for his leadership and the members of our armed forces, NATO, and our allies for protecting the Libyan people,” said Nevada Sen. Harry Reid. “The situation in Libya is still fluid and the potential for violence is not over. But as we approach a post-Gadhafi era, the international community will look to the leaders of the opposition to implement a peaceful transition to democracy.”

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