The U.S. ambassador to the United Nations said Wednesday that American officials were prepared to support actions beyond a no-fly zone to protect civilians in Libya and halt the Tripoli regime’s advances against rebel forces, marking a dramatic shift in emphasis by the Obama administration.
The U.N. Security Council is debating a resolution to take action in Libya, and could vote as soon as Thursday. U.S. Ambassador Susan Rice said discussions included a no-fly zone. She did not offer any other specifics, but she emphasized that the council needed to take “swift and meaningful action to try to halt the killing on the ground.”
Her reference to other military measures reflected the harsh realities of the Libyan conflict: Moammar Kadafi has made so many gains against the rebels that a no-fly zone may no longer be enough to stop his advance.
“The U.S. view is that we need to be prepared to contemplate steps that include, but perhaps go beyond, a no-fly zone at this point, as the situation on the ground has evolved, and as a no-fly zone has inherent limitations in terms of protection of civilians at immediate risk,” Rice said.
Until now, the Obama administration had seemed reluctant to support imposition of a no-fly zone. But with Kadafi’s forces crushing the rebellion, the U.S. is facing mounting pressure to intervene.
Over the weekend, the Arab League voted in favor of a no-fly zone, giving the U.S. some political cover. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton reflected the change in the administration’s thinking.
“So many different actions are being considered,” Clinton said Wednesday in an interview with CBS. “Yes, a no-fly zone, but others as well, to enable the protection of Libyan citizens against their own leader, who seems to be determined to turn the clock back and kill as many of them as possible.”
Some Middle East observers fear that time is running out. At a conference in Washington on Wednesday, some experts warned that Kadafi might be within 48 hours of defeating the rebellion and recovering lost territory.
At the conference, sponsored by the Foreign Policy Initiative, participants were baffled by what they described as the Obama administration’s passivity in the face of Kadafi’s march.
“President Obama needs to think very seriously about saying Kadafi must go, and not making that stick,” said Michele Dunne, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “There’s an impact on the United States and the president’s role in the world.”
Bloomberg News reported that Libya’s deputy U.N. ambassador, Ibrahim Dabbashi, who has sided with rebels, said Wednesday that rapid action was needed to stop the regime’s forces from launching two offensives. He said Kadafi forces were preparing offensives in eastern and western Libya.
Clinton, responding to criticism that the administration may have acted too slowly in signaling its support for a no-fly zone, said it was important to have international agreement on a response to the Libyan crisis.
“There is no way that the United States will take unilateral action on any of these issues,” she said, alluding to criticism over the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. “We are not going to act alone. There would be unforeseen consequences to that that I believe would be detrimental.”
The Arab League’s decision helped propel support for concerted international action, she said.
“There was a sea change in opinion when the Arab League issued its statement on Saturday,” she said. “That has changed the thinking of a lot of people.”