A History of Violence

Last Friday Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) announced that he would appoint a select committee to further investigate the September 11, 2012 terrorist attacks on the U.S. diplomatic compound and the CIA facility in Benghazi, Libya. This decision comes in the midst of a midterm election season and predictably it has generated panoply of partisan rhetoric on both sides of the aisle.

Oversight is a fundamental function of the legislative branch and the Benghazi terrorist attacks, which took the lives of four Americans, deserve all the necessary scrutiny by Members of Congress. But a little history on Congress’s own record with respect to events that transpired in Libya before, during and after the Benghazi attacks is instructive here.

Benghazi did not occur in a vacuum but rather it was the culmination of a confused and ill-conceived military mission in Libya that Congress only half-heartedly endorsed and consequently failed to properly oversee.

On March 17, 2011 the UN Security Council adopted resolution 1973 which authorized the establishment of a no-fly zone over Libya. According to media reports, it was approximately during that time that President Obama also signed a secret finding that authorized covert support for the Libyan rebels who were trying to oust their country’s longtime dictator, Col. Muammar Gaddafi.

Soon enough American air assets and military personnel, along with a large NATO coalition, were participating in enforcing the no-fly zone. By late October 2011, the Libyan dictator had met a grisly death at the hands of the rebels and NATO was ready to officially terminate its combat mission in Libya. And this is when Libya’s unravelling began.

In late June 2011, Congress reluctantly waded into the Libya debate – months after American and NATO forces were already providing military support to the Libyan rebels. But House Speaker John Boehner only further muddled Congress’s intentions by simultaneously advancing for a vote two contradictory measures.

The first measure, H J Res 68, which would have authorized the limited use of US Armed Forces in support of the NATO mission in Libya, was defeated. This vote took place on June 24, 2011. On the same day, slightly less than two hours later and with barely an hour to spare for floor debate, Congress voted on HR 2278 which also failed. But HR 2278 was designed to limit the use of funds for the Libya mission. By defeating the measure Congress essentially allowed the funds to continue to flow towards the NATO operation. Within the span of only a few hours Congress had managed to complete a dizzying 180 degree turn in which the Libya mission was not authorized but yet the Obama Administration could continue to fund it. You would be forgiven if you find this confusing.

By casting these votes, Congress injected significant ambiguities into the legality and conduct of the Libya mission. Furthermore, Members left the intricacies of managing post-revolutionary Libya to the Obama Administration alone. Congress did not pay much attention to the chaotic environment that was wreaking havoc in the capital Tripoli and all across Libya. But the blowback from the military intervention was significant.

Congress finally woke up to the Libyan reality when the Benghazi tragedy exploded with full force only two months before the 2012 presidential election. The Benghazi congressional inquiries and investigations quickly became mired in partisan politics. The public debate focused almost exclusively on the now infamous “talking points” offered by former UN Ambassador Susan Rice. But again Congress missed a chance to do a more thorough review of the broader U.S policies in Libya.

Libya is now a violent country riven by extremist tribal and militant factions that challenge the authority of the central government in Tripoli almost on a daily basis. The country is awash in weapons and has become a dangerous conduit for jihadi fighters not only across the restive Sahel region but for the civil war in Syria as well. And just last month a disturbing new reporting revealed that a secret training facility, set up and run by US Special Operations Forces in the vicinity of the Libyan capital, was overrun by an extremist group led by a veteran Al Qaeda member.

Speaker Boehner is still working out the details on the precise scope of the investigation by the select Benghazi committee but let’s hope that this time around, it dispenses with the “talking points” controversy and provides a genuine oversight of the Libyan quagmire.

Katina Slavkova is a Fellow and Director of the Certificate Program at the Government Affairs Institute