WASHINGTON— The Obama administration is weighing its military options for Libya, conscious that it may need to flex U.S. muscle to help usher Moammar Gadhafi out of power but fearful of provoking even deadlier violence from a regime that has shown little restraint in attacking its own people.
The U.S. military also has no interest in getting bogged down in a third war.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Tuesday that any military action in the North African country must be carefully considered because it would have broad consequences for the region and the U.S. military, affecting even the effort in Afghanistan. And military leaders said it would be difficult to organize even the relatively modest threat of a no-fly zone over Libya to prevent Gadhafi from launching aerial assaults on his opponents. [Read more about national security and the military.]
"We also have to think about, frankly, the use of the U.S. military in another country in the Middle East," Gates said, a reference to the challenges involved with adding another war to the one in Iraq and the potential for backlash in the Arab world. 'We're sensitive about all of these things, but we will provide the president with a full range of options."
Gates' caution contrasted with the more strident tone adopted by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who warned that Libya "could become a peaceful democracy or it could face protracted civil war" amid continued violent clashes between government forces and those seeking Gadhafi's ouster.
Clinton told Congress the U.S. must lead an international response to the crisis, including expanding already tough financial and travel sanctions against Gadhafi, his family and confidants and possibly imposing a no-fly zone. "The United States continues to look at every single lever it can use against the Gadhafi regime," she said. [Check out a roundup of political cartoons on the Middle East protests.]
But the military seemed keen to temper the rhetoric.
Gates said he had ordered two Navy amphibious warships into the Mediterranean Sea, along with an extra 400 Marines, in case they are needed to evacuate civilians or provide humanitarian relief. And while he did not rule out other options, such as providing air cover for Libyan rebels, he made clear he has little enthusiasm for direct military intervention.
Their comments reflected the central bind facing the administration as it seeks to keep the heat on Gadhafi, whom President Barack Obama has called on to step down. It has called for a tough international response to the violence that has killed hundreds, if not thousands, in Libya, but there is a realization that sanctions may not be able to persuade enough Gadhafi loyalists to abandon his government.
Gates noted that the U.N. Security Council sanctions resolution passed last week provided no authorization to use armed force in Libya; nor is there agreement among NATO allies on taking military action.
Clinton also recognized the risks in outside military intervention, saying it might compromise Gadhafi's opponents, who do not want to be seen as American agents. "They want this to have been their accomplishment," Clinton told the committee. "We respect that."
As she spoke, Gadhafi and forces still loyal to him sought to protect their remaining strongholds in and around the capital of Tripoli and take back rebel-held areas in the east.
American officials conceded they had an incomplete picture of the rebels' chances of victory. Unlike in Egypt, where senior U.S. officials had regular contact with Egyptian military leaders during mass demonstrations that led to the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak's government last month, the U.S. and Libya have no substantial military-to-military relationship.
Military officials were essentially saying they wanted to give Obama realistic options for action in the narrow space they had to operate.