President Obama said Thursday the U.S. government is actively considering how to impose a no-fly zone on Libya as part of a range of options even as he suggested that non-military actions were a preferable way to respond to the governmental crisis in Libya.
The Pentagon has in recent days pushed back against calls on Capitol Hill and from human rights groups for the United States to become involved in setting up and enforcing a no-fly zone over Libya.
"I don't want us hamstrung," said President Obama during an appearance at the White House with President Felipe Calderon of Mexico. President Obama said he wants the option of a no-fly zone open to him. "I want us to be making our decisions based on what's going to be best for the Libyan people in consultation with the international community," he said.
While acknowledging the danger of a stalemate that "could be bloody" if rebels fail to engineer the ouster of Moammar Gadhafi, Obama also indicated a willingness to avoid any sort of military action in Libya.
"We did not see anti-American sentiment arising out of that movement in Egypt precisely because they felt that we hadn't tried to engineer or impose a particular outcome, but rather they owned it," he said of the revolution in Egypt, where outside governments did not intervene, but also where Hosni Mubarak stepped down without attacking his countrymen.
He pointed to international sanctions and newly authorized humanitarian efforts, including the use of military aircraft to transport refugees away from the border, as non-military actions the U.S. is taking with regard to Libya.
In public statements and testimony on Capitol Hill, Defense Secretary Robert Gates, top generals and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have increasingly emphasized the difficulty the U.S. would have in keeping the Libyan air force grounded. The chief concerns are that it would require striking inside Libya to disable anti-aircraft capabilities and even if it were a NATO operation, it would divert resources from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
There were calls throughout the week from Capitol Hill that the U.S. and NATO could be eventually be compelled to set up a "no-fly zone" to keep the Libyan military from attacking rebels trying to overthrow the regime of Col. Moammar Gadhafi.
"I believe that the global community cannot be on the sidelines while airplanes are allowed to bomb and strafe. A no-fly zone is not a long-term proposition, assuming the outcome is what all desire, and I believe we ought to be ready to implement it as necessary," said Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., at a Foreign Relations Committee hearing Wednesday.
But the response from the Pentagon has been decidedly cool and even top American diplomats have tried to lower expectations. Clinton began the week seeming open to a "no-fly zone" in Geneva on Monday – she called it "an option we are actively considering." By the time she gave testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Wednesday, her tone had changed.
"With respect to the no-fly zone, we have been discussing that with a lot of our allies and are looking at it, but there are many, many challenges associated with it," she said. "So at this time, we're focusing on how we can get medical supplies and food in to the people who are in safe enough zones that it can be delivered to assist them as they try to rid themselves of this regime."
"I think that we are a long way from making that decision," Clinton said.
The change in Clinton's tone coincided with decidedly cool testimony from Defense Secretary Robert Gates on Wednesday before a House panel.
Gates said the U.S. military would enforce one if ordered to do so, but added that there's been "a lot of loose talk" about the military options regarding Libya.
"Lets' call a spade a spade," he said and listed off how creating an exclusion zone would require an attack on Libyan air defenses, which Mullen has said one had to assume were capable until proven otherwise. Gates also said Libya's airspace would require more planes to police than are aboard an aircraft carrier.
Earlier in the week, Gates and Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Michael Mullen argued that there are no confirmed reports that the Libyan Air Force has bombed within Libya.That was before the videos came out yesterday showing bombs being dropped near CNN reporters.
Gen. James Mattis, the commander of U.S. Central Command, which would oversee any U.S. involvement, was even more blunt in separate testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday.
"My military opinion is, sir, it would be challenging. You would have to remove the air defense capability in order to establish the no-fly zone so it - no illusions here, it would be a military operation. It wouldn't simply be telling people not to fly airplanes," he said.
Pentagon and administration planners have pointed out the demands on U.S. resources of the war in Afghanistan and the winding down of its military presence in Iraq. Helping enforce an exclusion zone over Libya would require round-the-clock coverage from a host of military assets, according to Pentagon officials.
Plus, to give such military action international legitimacy, would require new authorization from the U.N. Security Council. There is some concern that Russia and China, each of which has the power to veto any Security Council resolution, would be skeptical of authorizing military action.
These roadblocks have not yet quieted calls on from both sides of the political aisle on Capitol Hill that a no-fly zone be pursued by the U.S. and NATO.
Speaking on MSNBC, Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., admitted that enforcing such a zone would be difficult to set up. But he said that should not preclude it.
"Is it complicated? Yeah. Can we do it? Of course, the U.S. and international NATO militaries can do it. We did it for a long time and quite successfully in Iraq. This would be for a much shorter time, I hope and pray," he said.
There is a perception among some on Capitol Hill that a no-fly zone would not be difficult to enforce.
"I really don't agree that the no-fly effort in Libya should be that difficult… I frankly think the threat of a no-fly zone, if we could put any group together so it wouldn't be solely an American effort, a United States effort, is worth vigorously pursuing, said Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., on Capitol Hill in an exchange with Clinton Wednesday. "A tragedy is happening there now and you're speaking up on it and I appreciate that, but I would think we could do more."
With reporting by Jake Tapper, Sunlen Miller, Luis Martinez and Kirit Radia.