The Obama administration is drawing careful limits on its potential military involvement in the increasingly bloody struggle between the Libyan government and rebel forces, despite growing calls for Western intervention.
Administration officials, while stepping up efforts to help refugees fleeing Libya, say they will provide only secondary military aid to the rebels, such as electronic jamming of government communications, unless an increase in civilian killings by Moammar Kadafi’s forces prompts an international consensus for stronger steps. Even then, officials say, they would prefer the U.S. play a supporting role in an international military coalition.
This reticence has placed the U.S. in the position of doing little more than old-fashioned saber-rattling, intended to show the Kadafi government that Washington still could take military action, and perhaps to convince the world that the White House is not ignoring the violence in Libya. The Pentagon has moved two ships near Libya, and on Monday NATO increased the number of flights by its AWACS surveillance planes that track flights of military aircraft.
But the U.S. has repeatedly downplayed the possibility of a no-fly zone, which the rebels have implored the West to institute to prevent air attacks against them.
U.S. officials acknowledge that Kadafi’s air force could be an important factor in the conflict but say that, up to now, he hasn’t been using it for intense attacks on civilians.
The cautious approach reflects the view that another American-led invasion of an Arab state would dangerously deepen the antagonism between the United States and the Muslim world. Many senior administration officials, at the Pentagon and elsewhere, are also worried about plunging into what could be a protracted civil war at a time when the U.S. military is overstretched in Afghanistan and Iraq.
“The question is: Are they turning their guns indiscriminately on civilians, or are they assaulting people bearing arms?” a senior administration official said. “If Kadafi unleashed overwhelming force — including large-scale shelling and bombing of cities — then the answer is clear. But, based on what we’ve seen, the real question is simply, ‘Are we willing to get drawn into this?’ And that calculation has to be done very soberly.”
Western allies could provide the rebels with intelligence about Kadafi’s forces to help them avoid ambushes and fight smarter, said Jeffrey White of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. They also could provide ammunition, fuel, medical help, communications gear and weapons training, he said.
An increasing number of Republicans in Congress, including Sen. John McCain of Arizona and Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida, chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, are urging a no-fly zone, and so are some Democrats, including Sen. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and typically an ally of the administration.
Obama has called for Kadafi to give up his post and has emphasized that the U.S. is considering all options. The president and British Prime Minister David Cameron agreed in a phone call Tuesday that they needed to consider a “full spectrum of responses,” the White House said.
Although U.S. officials say they are working with NATO allies on potential military contingencies, the administration has repeatedly trotted out senior officials over the last two weeks to convey reluctance about the military options.
Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates was forceful this week in ruling out the possibility that the U.S. would send in ground troops. “I don’t think anybody has any intention of putting any ground forces in Libya. Nobody has ever talked about that,” he said on Fox News.
U.S. officials have made clear that they want American allies to take the lead on the diplomatic side as well. This week, French and British diplomats put forth at the United Nations Security Council a resolution to endorse a no-fly zone.
But it appears that the international support the administration says is needed for military action won’t come soon, if at all.
Russia and China have signaled they don’t support the idea of a no-fly zone. Opinion is also divided within the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, with Turkey opposed to intervention of any kind and other members cool to the idea.
Meanwhile, U.S. officials are putting their highest priority on trying to end the Libyan conflict by convincing Kadafi’s aides, generals and even business partners that they face war-crimes charges and a bleak future for collaborating with him.
U.S. officials have repeatedly telephoned Libyan Foreign Minister Musa Kusa to urge him to abandon support for Kadafi. But Kusa, one of the few senior Libyan officials with personal ties to American officials, has rebuffed those appeals.
U.S. diplomats have been reaching out to Libyan rebel leaders for the last 10 days, trying to learn more about them, what their goals are and whether they could work as partners with the U.S. and its allies. But U.S. officials say they are far from providing arms to the rebels, which they note is prohibited by a U.N. Security Council resolution adopted last month to sanction Kadafi and his family members.
At a meeting of the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday, Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va.) said that “it is not a good idea to give weapons and military support to people who you do not know. When it comes to the opposition in Libya, we do not know them.”
Some pillars of the foreign policy establishment are warning that a victory by Kadafi would have dangerous consequences for the U.S.
“If Kadafi crushes this rebellion, we have a dangerous rogue in the Middle East who can only cause us trouble in the future,” said Sandy Berger, who was President Clinton’s last national security advisor. “It would be a brutal suppression of a popular uprising, which is not something we want to be associated with.”
David S. Cloud in the Washington bureau contributed to this report.