U.S. involvement in Libya divides Nevada legislators

WASHINGTON -- Nevadans in Congress split Wednesday over the U.S. mission in Libya, as Republicans pressed President Barack Obama to define U.S. goals while Democrats said it has been effective so far and should be given time to succeed.

Republican Rep. Joe Heck said he has "serious reservations" about U.S. aircraft and warships participating in airstrikes to enforce a no-fly zone over the Arab nation, and would vote to defund the operation if Congress were given the chance.

"I have great concern about what's going on," he said during a meeting in Las Vegas with the Review-Journal's editorial board.

"One, the president bypassed Congress. Two, there's no clear-cut national security objective that's been clearly articulated," Heck said. "There may be a moral imperative to go in and try to help the Libyans, but there are moral imperatives to go into many other countries around the world and help those people as well."

Supporting the operation, Democrat Rep. Shelley Berkley said it was clearly defined by United Nations resolution. "It is a very narrow mandate," she said, that is helping avert a humanitarian crisis.

"We are protecting civilians, we are stopping atrocities, and we are enforcing trade restrictions that have been mandated," Berkley said. "We are not doing it alone. We are not going in like cowboys. This took a great deal of deliberation.

"I don't think after two-and-a-half days we should be setting a date for ending the no-fly zone. It is too soon to tell whether it is going to be effective or not. I suspect it will be."

Berkley went further when talking about Libyan strongman Moammar Gadhafi whose regime has been targeted by the international restrictions. "If it was up to me, we would be doing everything we could to get rid of Gadhafi," she said

With lawmakers on recess and scattered in their districts this week, reaction to the Libya military operation that began Saturday has been somewhat diffuse.

Criticism has come from a mix of liberals and conservatives, with one complaint that Obama has not explained adequately why the United States was leading the U.N.-blessed effort, how long it may remain involved and how it will get out.

House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, sent Obama a letter Wednesday asking about U.S. strategy and costs, and whether it was acceptable for Gadhafi, who is being challenged by rebels, to remain in power after the military action ends.

Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev., said, "I can't think of one reason there is a vital American interest (in Libya) and certainly the president has not articulated that." He said Obama "may be a little afraid" to declare U.S. interests are connected to oil.

"It seems inconsistent to me to protect civilians when we didn't go into Rwanda, we didn't go into Darfur, we didn't stop some of the things happening in Burma," Ensign said, citing other countries where citizens were victimized by atrocity.

"We can't just be the police force for the world," Ensign said. "This was a time when other countries actually wanted to lead. Why wouldn't we just let them?"

Ensign also expressed concern about the aftermath. "We have chosen sides and we don't even know what these rebels are about," he said. "Two, the rebels are now dependent on us. What happens after we say we are done with the no-fly zone?"

After leading the international military operation that began over the weekend, the United States was reported Wednesday to be close to turning over command to NATO countries, although the U.S. would continue to play a role.

Airstrike targets have included anti-aircraft defenses, mechanized forces and communication infrastructure. NATO ships are also patrolling the Libyan coast.

Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., the Senate majority leader, "has been impressed by the Obama administration's leadership in bringing together a broad, U.N.-backed international coalition that has been extremely effective in enforcing the no-fly zone and eliminating Gadhafi's air defenses," spokesman Zac Petkanas said in a statement.

Rep. Dean Heller, R-Nev., did not comment on Wednesday. On a television talk show taped Monday, he said he would "give the president the benefit of the doubt on this one," although "I wish he would have talked more to Congress" about the mission.

The Associated Press contributed to this report. Contact reporter Alan Choate at achoate@reviewjournal.com or 702-229-6435. Contact Stephens Washington Bureau Chief Steve Tetreault at stetreault@stephensmedia.com or 202-783-1760.