Libyan Attacks Intensify but Coalition Strained
Barrage of airstrikes by U.S. and European militaries destroyed Libyan defenses.
March 21, 2011— -- The U.S. role in Libya is growing murkier as coalition forces continue to launch fresh attacks against Moammar Gadhafi's assets and allies such as Italy and Norway look for guidance on who is leading the strikes.
Obama administration officials have repeatedly said the military operation will be short in duration and scope, and that the United States will hand over authority to its coalition partners soon. The transition will happen in a "matter of days, not a matter of weeks," President Obama said today.
"How quickly this transfer takes places will be determined by the recommendations of our commanding officers."
But there is little clarity and a lot of hesitation on the part of coalition members on who will take over the reins.
NATO members have been divided over the goal and mission of the U.N.-backed air strikes, with Turkey and Russia leading the criticism. And such uncertainty has already strained the coalition.
Italian Foreign Minister Frattini today said Italy might "rethink the use of its bases" if the Libyan operation is not handed off to NATO.
Italy has been pushing for a NATO command center for the Libyan operations since the Saturday meeting in Paris and wants it set up in the coming days, which looks increasingly unlikely to happen.
Norway is reportedly also suspending its participation in military operations in Libya until the question of who is in command is clarified.
Members of the Arab League have also expressed skepticism. There were several calls from some members of the Arab League this weekend to stop the strikes, given reports of civilian deaths being broadcast by Libyan state TV. The United Arab Emirates, which was to be a key participant, has decided not to send military aircraft.
Obama today sought to temper some of the concerns about the mission, saying the United States' advanced military capabilities and initial leadership "shapes the environment in which a no-fly zone would be effective."
"After the initial thrust that has disabled Gadhafi's air defenses, limits his ability to threaten large population centers like Benghazi, that there is going to be a transition taking place in which we have a range of coalition partners... who will then be participating in establishing a no-fly zone," Obama said in Chile. "So there will be a transition taking place of which we are one of the partners."
There have been mixed messages from U.S. commanders on how the mission will aid opposition forces.
Gen. Carter F. Ham, who is leading the U.S. effort in Libya, said today that the mission is "not to support opposition forces," but later added that the coalition will not support rebels if they take offensive action against Gadhafi's regime, only if they are attacked.
Ham also acknowledged that the task of handing over leadership of the operation from the United States to another coalition member will be complicated.
"It's not so simple as just having a handshake someplace and saying, 'OK, you're now in charge,'" he said. "There are some complex tasks that have to occur."
Defining the opposition in Libya is also "a very problematic situation," Ham said.
"They're basically civilians trying to protect their civilian lives, businesses, and families," he said. "It's not a clear distinction, because we're not talking about a regular military force."
The Obama administration does not want a long-term U.S. engagement, but it has been criticized domestically for its handling of the war and not reaching out to members of Congress in advance.
The president today reiterated the need for a humanitarian intervention, saying that Gadhafi's threat to raze the eastern Libyan town of Benghazi is what prompted him and coalition partners to act.
The "core principle that has to be upheld here is that when the entire international community also unanimously says that there is a potential humanitarian crisis about to take place, that a leader who has lost his legitimacy, decides to turn his military on his own people, that we simply can't stand by with empty words, that we have to take some action," he said.
Sources told ABC News that Obama was not only alarmed about the potential mass slaughter, but also about the message that would be sent by not stopping it. He was afraid it would say to pro-democracy demonstrators throughout the Arab world that the U.S. has abandoned them and he was also concerned that not acting could further destabilize Libya's neighbors Egypt and Tunisia, still vulnerable after their own revolutions.
The senior White House official told ABC News earlier today that the White House consulted with Congress before any military action began, and will continue to do so. Administration officials for weeks kept members of Congress informed as to how events were developing.
"We take the consultative role very seriously," the official said.
On a practical level, the official said, this was "a fast-moving event that took place when Congress was not in session. In order to stop an imminent humanitarian catastrophe, we had to move very fast, and we still convened a bipartisan congressional meeting."
But both liberal and conservative members of Congress are questioning the intervention at a time when the United States is already engaged in a complicated and bloody battle in Afghanistan, and is confronting major economic issues at home.
While regime change in Libya is the U.S. policy, Gadhafi's removal is not the goal of the operation, and officials say Gadhafi could still stay in power.
The goal is to stop the attacks on civilians and have European and Arab countries enforce a no-fly zone, with the United States moving back to a support role. The United States will continue to squeeze Gadhafi using diplomatic means: travel bans, asset freezes, sanctions.
"There are consequences to removing him militarily," the official said. "It's a far more complicated piece of business and for the military a far more expansive and expensive mission."
But the intervention also raises the question of whether the coalition will intervene in Bahrain and Yemen, where similar uprisings have been brutally squelched.
The difference, White House officials say, is the scope of violence.
"We've condemned the violence in Bahrain and we don't think it's part of any solution to the demonstrations there," the official said. "But in Libya you have Gadhafi carrying out a military campaign against his own people. There was simply a much greater risk of mass killings in places like Benghazi."
Unlike Libya, the United States has close relations with Yemen, and has a major naval base in Bahrain.