WASHINGTON — Searching for answers as Libya’s fighting raged on, President Barack Obama’s national security team on Wednesday weighed how to force Moammar Gadhafi from power and halt his brutal crackdown on those rebelling against his regime. But the White House said no action was imminent and set no timeline as attention shifted to a pivotal NATO session in Brussels.
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“We’re not at a decision point,” Obama’s spokesman, Jay Carney, said as the White House sought hard to inject perspective into a fast-changing conflict. Gadhafi’s forces pounded rebels with artillery and gunfire in at least two major cities on Wednesday, adding more pressure on nations and international bodies to figure out what to do – and whether they can agree.
The NATO alliance said it was planning for any eventuality in the Libyan crisis. But with Defense Secretary Robert Gates preparing to join a meeting of alliance defense chiefs to discuss military options on Thursday, there was little sign they would agree to set up a no-fly zone over the North African country.
The United States held to its right to show its military might unilaterally, including potential naval maneuvers closer to Libyan shores. But Obama’s admonition for international action – not go-it-alone-force – remains a driving principle of any military intervention.
That approach offers broader legitimacy and shared burden, but also more complicated politics.
“We believe it’s important that this not be an American or a NATO or a European effort; it needs to be an international one,” Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Wednesday on CBS. She conceded divisions within the United Nations Security Council but said that a “good, solid international package” was being considered.
Wednesday’s high-level meeting in the White House Situation Room was not expected to yield a breakthrough of news; Obama’s aides cast it as one in a series of discussions as the president’s top security advisers sought to rally around recommendations for him. The review includes assessing the cost and potential effectiveness of imposing a no-fly zone operation over all or part of Libya, in which the U.S. and partner nations could patrol with warplanes to deter Gadhafi from using his air force to bomb civilians.
Carney said he had no timetable for decisions, adding he did not want to even suggest that more action will be taken. He offered a broad defense of what the United States has already done on its own and with the United Nations in response to the crisis, from freezing assets to imposing sanctions, and insisted no such response has ever happened faster.
Still, the deepening and bloody standoff in Libya, combined with Obama’s tough declaration that Gadhafi must go, has kept the pressure on the president to do more.
Gadhafi has seized the momentum, battering the rebels with airstrikes and artillery fire and repulsing their westward march toward the capital, Tripoli.
The Obama administration has shown little enthusiasm for the no-fly zone idea in reviewing a series of options. Gates has said that beginning the flights would require an assault on Libyan air defenses, a step tantamount to war. Other officials have noted that the tactic may be ineffective in part because Gadhafi appears to be using his planes sparingly.
Nonetheless, a no-fly zone has become the best-known option and the one that European allies, in particular, consider an effective international response.
Britain and France are pushing for the U.N. to create a no-fly zone over the country, and while the U.S. may be persuaded to sign on, such a move is unlikely to win the backing of veto-wielding Security Council members Russia and China, which traditionally object to such steps as infringements on national sovereignty.
“There are individuals and countries within the UN who question the efficacy of a no-fly zone, the need for a no-fly zone, what it would entail. I think those are somewhat justified questions,” State Department spokesman Mark Toner said. “We’re still evaluating the option.” Meanwhile, NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen told reporters Wednesday that “NATO is not looking to intervene in Libya.”
He said the alliance, however, was doing the planning for “all eventualities.” The NATO chief said the alliance will extend its surveillance of Libya’s coastal area by keeping an airborne warning and control plane on patrol 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell indicated Wednesday that the U.S. was unlikely to make a decision this week on any military action.
At NATO headquarters, a senior U.S. official downplayed the prospect of NATO establishing a no-fly zone. He said it remained an option but that allies would want a U.N. Security Council action endorsing it in advance, and no such endorsement appears forthcoming.
The official previewed the NATO talks on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject.
U.S. military officials are providing Obama with options that can range from humanitarian assistance and a show of force to war-fighting tactics. Military action could include creating and enforcing the no-fly zone, using Air and Navy forces in the region to jam and take out Libya’s air defenses, and ramping up intelligence and surveillance in the region.
There are at least five major U.S. warships in the Mediterranean, including the USS Kearsarge with its Marine contingent on board. And there are Air Force fighters, bombers, tankers and electronic warfare aircraft easily available from bases in Germany, England and Italy.