WASHINGTON - In a sign of growing war weariness in Congress and among the general public, the Republican-led House of Representatives voted Thursday to bar the deployment of U.S. troops to Libya and narrowly defeated a provision requiring President Barack Obama to submit a plan for withdrawing U.S. troops from Afghanistan.
The latter measure, one of dozens of proposed amendments to the 690- billion-dollar 2011 defence authorisation bill, was defeated 204-215. Despite its defeat, the amendment, which is designed to press Obama to accelerate plans for the U.S. troop withdrawal that is scheduled to begin Jul. 1, got 42 more votes than a similar measure received last year.
Although the administration opposed the amendment, all but eight Democratic lawmakers voted for it. They were joined by more than two dozen Republicans, most of whom were voted into office for the first time last November.
"It sends a strong signal to the president that the U.S. House of Representatives and the American people want change," Democratic Rep. Jim McGovern, who co-sponsored the amendment both this year and last, said shortly after the vote.
"The White House has got to be worried about its Afghanistan war strategy when an overwhelming majority of the Democrats in the House and 26 Republicans are saying the president needs to tell us how this war is going to end," said Jim Cason of the Friends Committee on National Legislation (FCNL), a Quaker lobby group.
The House also adopted amendments banning the establishment of military bases in Libya and stating explicitly that approval of this year's defence budget should not be construed as an endorsement of Washington's more than two-month-old military intervention in Libya.
In spite of the 1973 War Powers Act, which requires the president to withdraw U.S. military forces from active hostilities within 60 days if Congress has not approved their deployment, Obama has not yet submitted a request, much to the frustration of many lawmakers on both sides of the aisle.
Even as lawmakers indicated growing concern about the mounting costs and consequences of the military interventions in Afghanistan and Libya, however, hawkish Republicans, bolstered by a handful of Democrats approved a provision authorising the president to use military force against terrorism suspects in any country around the world where they may be found.
That provision, which was attached to the authorisation bill by the powerful Republican chairman of the House Armed Services Committee one week after the killing by U.S. Special Forces of Al-Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden in Pakistan, survived an attempt to repeal it by a 187-234 margin.
The measure, which would significantly expand the authorisation approved by Congress in 2001 to take military action against those responsible for the 9/11 attacks, was opposed by the White House.
It is also considered unlikely to be approved by the Democrat-led Senate which is scheduled to begin drafting its own version of the 2011 defence bill in mid-June. The two houses will eventually have to reconcile their different versions before the bill can go to Obama for signature or veto.
The latest votes, however, come amid growing unease about the course of Washington's military intervention in Libya, as well as a fierce debate – both inside and outside the administration - over U.S. strategy in Afghanistan in the aftermath of bin Laden's killing.
More than two months since the U.N. authorised a no-fly zone over Libya, U.S. and Western hopes that the regime of Col. Moammar Gaddafi would quickly collapse have been frustrated, and, as Obama made clear in a press conference with British Prime Minister David Cameron Wednesday, the current conflict may continue for a much longer period.
Much to the frustration of both Britain and France, which led the drive to intervene, Obama has always insisted that Washington's military role would be "limited" - confined mostly to refuelling, intelligence, and other support - and that other NATO powers and their Arab allies would have to bear most of the burden.
Despite the relatively limited nature of Washington's involvement, Congress, as well as the general public, has become increasingly anxious both about the costs of sustaining that intervention and the strategy for bringing it to an end.
That anxiety was reflected in the votes over the past two days on the defence bill, particularly by the easy passage of amendments banning the deployment of U.S. troops to Libya, the establishment of any military base there, and the explicit assertion that Congress has not authorised the ongoing deployment.
As noted by the Congressional Quarterly, the last amendment was "so non-controversial that it was adopted by voice vote, as was another amendment that requires the administration to report on the long-term costs of U.S. military operations in Libya." Last week, the Pentagon reported that Libya-related operations through mid-May had cost close to one billion dollars.
More significant, however, was the near-majority support garnered by the amendment requiring Obama to submit a withdrawal plan for Afghanistan, where about 100,000 U.S. troops are currently deployed. The plan, according to the amendment, should provide for "an accelerated transition of U.S. military and security operations in Afghanistan to the Government of Afghanistan."
Obama has promised to begin withdrawing troops Jul. 1 with the understanding that all combat troops will be out in 2014.
The administration is currently engaged in an intense internal debate on the pace of that withdrawal, and, specifically, how many troops will be withdrawn this summer.
While the U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Gen. David Petraeus, has reportedly urged only a nominal drawdown of at most 5,000 and the continuation of the current "counter-insurgency" strategy (COIN), Vice President Joe Biden and Obama's political advisers have called for a more substantial reduction, as well as the adoption of a "counter-terrorist" strategy (CT) that would be less costly and permit Washington to withdraw most of its remaining forces more quickly.
As currently conducted, the COIN strategy is costing the U.S. Treasury about 10 billion dollars a month.
The unexpectedly strong vote in favour of the amendment co-sponsored by McGovern and a bipartisan group of other lawmakers is likely to strengthen the hand of the pro-CT forces within the administration.
"Five thousand on Jul. 1 and nothing else, that won't fly," warned Democratic Rep. John Garamendi during Thursday's debate. "That will create a great deal of anger."
The fact that more than two dozen Republicans – four times as many as last year and most of them newly elected - backed the measure was also taken here as another sign that patience with what has become the longest foreign war in U.S. history is running out.
Jim Lobe's blog on U.S. foreign policy can be read at http://www.lobelog.com.