WASHINGTON— The Obama administration and America's allies have won an open-ended endorsement from the United Nations for military action in Libya, where Moammar Gadhafi's regime is pressing to eliminate any opposition to his rule. Now they'll have to move fast.
The breakthrough at the U.N. Security Council comes after days of cautious diplomacy from the administration and sets the stage for airstrikes, a no-fly zone and other military measures short of a ground invasion to halt the violence in Libya and push Gadhafi from power. It was unclear if Britain and France would lead the way militarily and exactly what the U.S. role would be. [Take the U.S. News poll: Is Obama handling the Libya crisis the right way?]
The U.S. backing for international action comes after several administration officials questioned the plan for providing aerial cover, with the Pentagon perhaps the most vociferous in its skepticism. It has described the no-fly zone as a step tantamount to war, and a number of U.S. officials have expressed fears that involvement in Libya could further strain America's already stretched military and entangle the country in an expensive and messy conflict in another Muslim country.
Britain announced Friday that it would send fighter jets and France was also making plans to deploy planes, but as of Friday morning the U.S. had yet to announce what its role would be.
The U.S. has positioned a host of forces and ships in the region, including submarines and destroyers and amphibious assault and landing ships with some 400 Marines aboard. It also could provide a range of surveillance assets.
A Pentagon official said Thursday that the planning continued across a range of operations, including a no-fly zone. It was unclear how much the United States would become involved beyond providing support.
Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz told Congress it would take as much as a week to impose a no-fly zone over Libya.
"It would undoubtedly require resources in Europe as well as those that are based in the U.S.," Schwartz told the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Just Thursday, speaking in Tunisia, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said a no-fly zone would require action to protect the planes and pilots, "including bombing targets like the Libyan defense systems." But pressed on by Britain and France, and buoyed over the weekend by the surprise support of the Arab League, the no-fly option gained traction and led to a swift reversal in position from the administration.
After the resolution, President Barack Obama spoke with French President Nicolas Sarkozy and British Prime Minister David Cameron and the leaders "agreed that Libya must immediately comply with all terms of the resolution and that violence against the civilian population of Libya must cease," according to a White House statement.
"The leaders agreed to coordinate closely on next steps, and to continue working with Arab and other international partners to ensure the enforcement of U.N. Security Council resolutions on Libya," it added.
Time is of the essence: Gadhafi vowed Thursday to launch a final assault on the opposition's capital Benghazi and crush the rebellion as his forces advanced toward the city and warplanes bombed its airport.
And while the U.N. resolution's authorization of a no-fly zone over the country and "all necessary measures" to protect civilians may add pressure on Gadhafi and show him that far more powerful forces are coming, the unpredictable leader has refused to heed the countless calls for him to step aside after 42 years in control of his country. And he has pledged to fight to the death.
Even before the Security Council's 10-0 vote, the Obama administration readied plans to enforce the no-fly zone, with congressional officials describing a closed-door briefing in which the administration said it could ground Gadhafi's air force by Sunday or Monday. The effort likely will involve jet fighters, bombers and surveillance aircraft, officials said, and the U.S. is keen to have Arab countries such as Jordan, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates participate in the operation.