The Obama administration has taken another risky step on Libya by recognizing the ragtag rebel forces as that nation's de facto government. The move was the latest reach in what began as an international humanitarian mission aimed at keeping Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi from slaughtering his own people. It is one thing to protect civilians by taking part in a limited, allied military campaign authorized by the United Nations. It is another altogether to bestow American diplomatic status on a political movement with no history or organization and little command of the security situation.
The United States and its NATO allies announced the move Friday during a meeting in Turkey. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton sought to downplay the issue as a matter of expedience, saying Washington would deal with the Transitional National Council until a more formal authority took power once Gadhafi left. The move is partly procedural, paving the way for governments to release billions of dollars in frozen Libyan assets to the cash-strapped rebels. But it also was a political declaration. The United States is now more invested than ever in a wholesale change of power in Libya.
This is the sort of mission creep that the War Powers Act was intended to stop, and even more reason why President Barack Obama needs to submit America's Libyan operation for congressional approval. With NATO's air campaign against Gadhafi's forces in its fifth month, it is no mystery that Obama has sided with the rebels. But the U.N. resolution authorizing force makes no mention of ousting Gadhafi. It makes no mention of supplying the rebels. It makes no mention of channeling Libyan assets to the opposition. And it certainly doesn't authorize any process for unseating the current government and installing a new one.
The allies are understandably frustrated. Even after stretching the U.N. mandate, the bombing campaign against Gadhafi has taken much longer than most expected. And it remains unclear whether Gadhafi will succumb to diplomatic pressure and leave on his own. Hence the declaration Friday that the United States and NATO are one with the rebels (whoever they are). The administration may think the current crisis with Congress over the budget gives it a pass to ratchet up the stakes in Libya. But there will be a day of reckoning with Libya's government, whether it's headed by Gadhafi or the emergent rebel movement. The stakes have been raised, and still without any meaningful public debate.