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.
Five nations abstained on the vote, including Russia and China. But the fact that neither exercised their right to veto the resolution represented a major victory for the U.S. and its allies, who've often been stymied at the global body by countries fearful of granting powers that infringe on national sovereignty.
For Obama, the shift to international action comes as he faced increased criticism for not moving aggressively enough to help the rebels trying to topple Gadhafi, long counted as among the world's most ruthless dictators. Some U.S. lawmakers demanded the no-fly zone, while others have proposed more strident measures such as supplying the opposition with arms.
Three leading senators applauded the U.N. action.
"The administration deserves credit for getting this resolution passed with such strong support," said a joint statement from Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., John McCain, R-Ariz., and Joe Lieberman, I-Conn. "This was an important step on behalf of the people of Libya, but it will only be as effective as its implementation. With Gadhafi's forces moving toward Benghazi, we must immediately work with our friends in the Arab League and in NATO to enforce this resolution and turn the tide before it is too late."
The senators said they would also work to build bipartisan support for Obama to take "decisive measures to stop Gadhafi."
That backing was missing Thursday at a Senate hearing, as Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., and others criticized Obama and his national security aides for moving too slowly to cut off the Libyan government's counteroffensive. Initially rocked by the revolt, the regime has recently regained lost territory and set its sights on Benghazi, the last rebel stronghold.
William Burns, undersecretary of state for political affairs, said Gadhafi's forces "have made significant strides on the ground over the course of the last 24, 48 hours ... taking full advantage of their overwhelming military."
Ahead of the U.N. vote, several lawmakers hinted that a change in the U.S. approach might be coming.
"If they (the rebels) can hold out another week, that may be the time necessary for the international community to respond," Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill, told reporters.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said he believes President Barack Obama has authority to commit U.S. forces to participate in the no-fly zone without congressional approval, but he expressed hope that Congress would bless the move.
"If the Obama administration decides to impose a no-fly zone or take other significant military action in Libya, I believe it should first seek a congressional debate on a declaration of war."