Republicans on the House and Senate Armed Services panels are skeptical about the Bush administration’s proposal to send U.S. troops to war-torn Liberia, and for weeks now they have been quietly demanding that the White House ask for Congressional approval before committing thousands of ground troops to a peacekeeping force.
But it appeared Friday that the White House has so far not given lawmakers the consultation they have asked for, as President Bush announced that he had ordered three naval vessels to the coast of the West African country in a preliminary endeavor to facilitate the arrival of peacekeeping forces from other African nations in the next few weeks.
Bush did not say when, or if, he would send in ground troops to help quell the ongoing Liberian civil war. But a White House spokesman noted that any operations would be “limited in time and scope” and that the Pentagon needed to position troops off the coast before conducting further assessments of their options.
The promise of a limited role for U.S. troops is likely to assuage some GOP fears that Bush may be overextending U.S. forces — hundreds of thousands of whom are also trying to stabilize Iraq and Afghanistan as well as prepare for other national security emergencies that could arise in North Korea, Syria or Iran.
Still, many Congressional Republicans said the Bush administration has not made a strong case that the humanitarian crisis and civil war in Liberia is a national security threat that requires a serious U.S. commitment of troops.
“I have not seen a good, tight evaluation plan that says, ‘Here is the mission, here is the plan, here is the exit strategy,’” Senate Armed Services Chairman John Warner (R-Va.) said in an interview. “It is the prerogative of any president under the Constitution to utilize troops, but until they have made the case, I withhold my support.”
Still, Warner called the president’s announcement on Friday a “prudent planning and pre-positioning of forces.”
Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.) said Republicans have been regularly voicing their concerns about the administration’s plan for Liberia at leadership and GOP conference meetings.
“It hasn’t been debated but there have been concerns expressed, obviously, and questions asked,” Lott said. “I don’t think anybody is laying down any markers. They’re just saying, ‘Gee, is this what we ought to do?’ … What are our national security interests there?”
Lott said several GOP lawmakers brought up their misgivings in classified Members-only briefings with top administration officials.
“I’m one of a good number of Members that are saying to this administration that ‘I think you need to take an inventory’ [of U.S. troop operations],” Sen. Larry Craig (R-Idaho) said Thursday. “If we can’t bring adequate forces to bear to protect the forces that are there, then we shouldn’t go there.”
Many Members still hope the president will ask for Congressional approval in the guise of a resolution, much like the ones Congress passed in support of the current and 1991 Iraq wars, as well as conflicts in Bosnia and Kosovo.
“The consultation is absolutely essential in all scenarios where a president sends into harm’s way, the men and women of the armed forces,” Warner said.
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), a member of Armed Services, added that he had been pressing the administration to quickly ask the Senate for its approval for ground troops before Senators leave at the end of this week for the August recess.
“They need a vote, and they realize they need a vote,” McCain said of conversations with administration officials. “If I were [Bush] and I were thinking about moving troops in … I’d come to Congress now. [The administration] may be in a difficult situation if we’re all in recess and they want to move” ground troops.
Some House Republicans, who began their recess at the end of last week, also insisted that Congressional approval is essential.
“I do think that it would behoove the administration to consult with Congress to show they have fully assessed the situation in Liberia,” said Rep. John McHugh (R-N.Y.), chairman of the House Armed Services subcommittee on total force.
But Warner said it would not be unusual for Bush to first send troops into Liberia and ask for Congressional approval afterward.
Even if Bush asks for Congress’ blessing, the outcome could be uncertain. Many Republicans and Democrats expressed concern about overextending American forces and potentially lessening the United States’ ability to react quickly to any new national security threats.
“I said back in the Clinton administration, when he was cutting back on our force strength, that the day would come when we’d be in this situation,” said Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), an Armed Services member. “And now that day has come.”
Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.), meanwhile, said the White House had not convinced his Caucus to support the decision just yet.
“We would want to know what the mission is, how long they would be there, how many troops would be sent and the degree to which we get international involvement,” Daschle said on Thursday. “I think there is an appreciation of the need for us to play a role in Africa and Liberia in particular, but I think that it’s something that will require a lot more consultation than what we’ve had so far.”
Many Members also expressed fear that any U.S. ground troops in Liberia could become embroiled in another Vietnam or Somalia — the U.S. humanitarian effort of the early 1990s that ended with 18 soldiers being killed in a botched operation to capture Somalian warlords in the capital, Mogadishu.
“I think it could be a quagmire. They’ve been fighting for years over there, and we could get bogged down as well,” said Rep. Joel Hefley (R-Colo.), who chairs the House Armed Services subcommittee on readiness. “We don’t want to do what we did in Vietnam, where we put in a few thousand troops and then a few more and had mission creep.”