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Graham, McCain: U.S. Response to Libya Was Too Slow

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Updated: 11:56 a.m.

Top Republicans criticized President Barack Obama on Sunday for not moving quicker on Libya but lent their support for U.S. military action, even as they strongly urged the administration to expand the mission to remove dictator Moammar Gaddafi from power.

Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, made clear during an interview on “Fox News Sunday” that the U.S. mission is limited to protecting the lives of Libyan civilian opponents to Gaddafi’s regime and that the American military would move into a support role in the next few days to allow European and Arab forces to take the lead. 

That did not sit well with Republicans, who charged Obama with abdicating U.S. leadership on the world stage while missing a chance to help Libyan rebels depose Gaddafi, who the CIA says has used his nation’s oil funds to support terrorism abroad. Gaddafi had made significant strides in the past decade to normalize relations with Western nations, and the United States rescinded the nation’s designation as a state sponsor of terrorism in 2006.

“I’m glad we’re finally doing something,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said on “Fox News Sunday.” “I don’t know how many people have died as we wait to do something, and I thank God for strong women in the Obama administration. I don’t know what finally got the president to act. But I’ve very worried that we’re taking a back seat rather than a leadership role.”

Obama “waited too long, there is no doubt in my mind about it,” Senate Armed Services ranking member John McCain said on CNN’s “State of the Union.” “But now, it is what it is. And we need, now, to support him and the efforts that our military are going to make. And I regret that it didn’t — we didn’t act much more quickly, and we could have.”

“But that’s not the point, now,” the Arizona Republican continued. “The point now is, let’s get behind this effort, do everything we can to support it. And I say to my friends in the Congress who are nervous about another intervention, I’m confident we can prevail, and I’m confident that if we hadn’t have taken this action that the consequences of failure would have reverberated for years.”

Mullen said the United States would not act beyond the limits of a United Nations Security Council resolution calling for military action to protect Libyan civilians, making clear that the mission does not include removing Gaddafi from power.

“The United Nations Security Council resolution was to protect the civilians in Benghazi specifically, and we’ve done that — we’ve started to do that,” Mullen said. “This is not about going after Gaddafi himself or attacking him at this particular point in time. It’s about achieving these relatively narrow and limited objectives so that he stops killing his people.

“This particular military mission is focused on ensuring that he can’t kill his civilians and that we are able to support humanitarian efforts,” Mullen added. “We’re in the lead to move into a support role in the next few days. ... I haven’t been given a mission beyond the one I just described.”

Sen. Jack Reed defended this strategy during an appearance on “Fox News Sunday” and said the Obama administration was correct to limit the U.S. military role in the operation. The Rhode Island Democrat attributed domestic pressure to rein in the federal deficit as among the reasons the White House was correct to let European and Arab forces take the lead in Libya.

“I think the president and his colleagues ... have done a superb job in building international support,” Reed said. “Without the Arab League’s endorsement I do not think there would have been a successful U.N. resolution and we would be frustrated now — and in fact we might have been pulled into this without the international support we need — not just militarily but financially, particularly at this critical moment when we’re struggling with the deficit.

“So I think the president’s leadership has created the conditions for an international coalition,” Reed continued. “We’re shaping the battlefield right now, initially we have that capacity. But we’ll be able to hand off very quickly to French, to Arab forces. ... That will send a strong signal to the Arab world that this is not about American interests, it’s about democracy in Libya.”

Mullen made the morning talk show rounds Sunday. He also appeared on “State of the Union,” ABC’s “This Week,” NBC’s “Meet the Press” and CBS’ “Face the Nation.”

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