WASHINGTON— The top NATO commander said Wednesday the U.S. military role in Libya will be reduced "measurably" as other nations take on added responsibilities in the war, an assessment that failed to satisfy lawmakers seeking more clarity about President Barack Obama's deployment of American forces. [See photos of the unrest in Libya.]
Testifying before Congress for the second straight day, Navy Adm. James Stavridis said the ratio of air strikes and warplane flights has been about 50 percent U.S. and 50 percent of U.S. partners, but over the next couple of weeks the United States will shift to an "enabler" in the operation.
Stavridis said that of the 40 admirals and senior officers involved, only five are Americans. He said an Italian admiral is overseeing the arms embargo against Libya. He also insisted that the United State would not send ground troops to Libya.
Still, members of the House Armed Services Committee expressed serious reservations about the future U.S. role in Libya, especially if there is a stalemate with Col. Moammar Gadhafi clinging to power.
They planned to pepper Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen with questions at closed-door, back-to-back briefings later in the day on Wednesday.
"It is a mission that I'm concerned as to whether or not its goals are clear. And also I'm a little concerned and believe it's unclear as to who we are supporting in this conflict," said Rep. Michael Turner, R-Ohio.
Said freshman Rep. Chris Gibson, R-N.Y., who did four Army combat tours in Iraq: "I'm opposed to action in Libya. We have so much on our plate to bring to closure."
Obama is under pressure from Congress to spell out an exit strategy for the U.S. military in Libya and provide a clear plan to end Gadhafi's 42-year rule, as the American public remains fiercely divided over the war. [See political cartoons about President Obama.]
Obama delivered a full-throated defense of his decision to deploy military forces to prevent a slaughter of Libyan civilians in his speech Monday and in the shadow of the United Nations on Tuesday. The president said the nation's conscience and its common interests "compel us to act" to protect civilian lives in Libya.
"We've learned from bitter experience — from the wars that were not prevented, the innocent lives that were not saved — is that all that's necessary for evil to triumph is that good people and responsible nations stand by and do nothing," the president said at the dedication of the Ronald H. Brown mission at the U.N.
In a series of network interviews, Obama insisted that the "noose is tightening" around Gadhafi although forces loyal to the longtime leader pounded the rebels with tanks and rockets Wednesday, forcing them to retreat. The president did not rule out arming the rebels, saying the U.S. and its partners could get weapons into Libya and all options were being considered.
In the course of his statements, however, Obama created more questions among lawmakers when he said ousting Gadhafi militarily would be a mistake and a diplomatic approach would be a better option.
"We hope Gadhafi leaves. I just don't think that that is a strategy," House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said Tuesday. "When you listen to what's going on and all the words, it is really nothing more than hope. So if Gadhafi doesn't leave, how long will NATO be there to enforce the no-fly zone?"
A new Associated Press-GfK poll found the country split on U.S. involvement in military actions in Libya, with 48 percent approving and 50 percent disapproving.
About three-quarters say it's somewhat likely that U.S. forces will be involved in Libya for the long term. Fifty-five percent say they would favor the United States increasing its military action to remove Gadhafi from power, although only 13 percent favor U.S. ground troops, a step Obama has said he would not take. [Check out a roundup of political cartoons on the Middle East uprisings.]