The United States is focused on "limited objectives" as part of the coalition enforcing a no-fly zone over Libya, and will take a "supporting role" in the coming days, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen said today.
"The French were the first ones in yesterday, in terms of starting to establish the no-fly zone. The United States is taking the lead in terms of the coalition," Mullen told ABC News' "This Week" anchor Christiane Amanpour this morning. "And we look to, in the next few days, transition that to a coalition leadership."
Mullen said getting the no-fly zone in place "has been successful so far," taking out Libya's air defenses, and limiting Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi's ability to fly planes or continue marching forces toward the rebel-held Benghazi.
"We're very focused on the limited objectives that the president has given us and actually the international coalition has given us, in terms of providing the no-fly zone so that he cannot attack his own people, to avoid any kind of humanitarian massacre, if you will, and to provide for the humanitarian corridors, humanitarian support of the Libyan people," Mullen said.
Mullen did not say that removing Gadhafi from power was a direct objective of the no-fly zone, and would not speculate on the length of time needed for coalition forces to operate.
"I think circumstances will drive where this goes in the future," Mullen said. "It's had a pretty significant effect very early in terms of our ability to address his forces, to attack his forces on the ground, which we did yesterday outside Benghazi, and get the no-fly zone stood up."
In contrast, France's ambassador to the United Nations, Gerard Araud, said Gadhafi's removal was an objective of French support for a coalition attack on Libya, adding that the "moral and human reaction" to Gadhafi's attacks on Libyan citizens drove their leadership of coalition efforts.
"It was impossible to consider a victory of Gadhafi and Gadhafi taking Benghazi," Araud told Amanpour. "He was saying that they will search house by house. He was referring to rivers of blood. It was simply totally impossible to accept it.
"We want the Libyan people to be able to express their will," Araud added. "And we consider that it means that Gadhafi has to go."
Ali Suleiman Aujali, the former Libyan ambassador to the United States who resigned to join the opposition to Ghadafi's regime, agreed that removing Gadhafi from power was a central mission.
"Protection of the Libyan civilian [is] only achieved by one goal, that Gadhafi is not there, not only by stop his airplanes striking the people," Aujali said. "The dangers is Gadhafi himself.
"If this is not the mission, then they would just hit some airplane -- shot the airplanes down and then leave us this madman, killing his people without mercy," Aujali added.
Mullen said he does not believe Libya has a strong enough military capability to retaliate against the United States or its allies in the region, saying that the past 24 hours have shown that Libya has "not been a very effective force."
"He still has some surface-to-air capability, where he could attack an aircraft, including one of ours. We haven't seen large-scale indications of that after the action yesterday," Mullen said. "He clearly has the ability to continue to attack his own people, and we're very focused on that, and trying to ensure that his military forces don't do that."
Former Bush administration Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff told Amanpour that while Gadhafi may pose some threat, his capabilities are limited.
"I think you have to assume there's an increased risk is the sense that Gadhafi is a proven terrorist, and it's wise to assume that he's got the intent at some point to do something to retaliate," Chertoff said. "But I think his capability has been much degraded… I think his capability in the U.S. is not that great."
But he cautioned that the threat should still be taken seriously.
"He's like a cornered rat," Chertoff said. "And a cornered rat will do whatever it has to do in order to defend itself or to strike back. So while right now my suspicion is they have their hands full, it's certainly something – it's prudent to consider that he may seek to divert attention or even to push back by striking someplace else."
Former Clinton administration energy secretary and ambassador to the United Nations Bill Richardson echoed the concern, saying he believes Americans flying in the Mediterranean "should be extra cautious" given Gadhafi's involvement in the Pan Am Flight 103 bombing over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988.
"He's very unpredictable -- he's almost a wild man right now," Richardson said. "I don't want to be an alarmist, but when a man is cornered who is desperate, who wants to cling on to power, who sees his base narrowing, who is attacked, could be capable, as he has in the past, very horrendous things."
French ambassador to the U.N. Araud said the coalition considered the risks, but says he believes Gadhafi is "prone to empty rhetoric."
"When you enter a military intervention, it's never risk-free. So we have to be careful and to consider all the dangers," Araud said.
But former Libyan ambassador Aujali cautioned that Gadhafi is not likely to back down, and will have to be forced out by a rebel forces taking over Tripoli.
"I think there is one thing in the mind of Gadhafi, that he will not step down at all. He will fight until the end," Aujali said. "He will fight. He will fight. He has no other choice. He has no shelter to go. And this is his ... attitude. He will never give up."