WASHINGTON — While it is clearly reluctant to become militarily involved in Libya's burgeoning civil war, the Obama administration is coming under pressure to do just that.
World oil prices are soaring, posing a threat to the U.S. economic recovery, and food and medicine shortages are looming in rebellious cities cordoned off by Moammar Gadhafi's forces. Top U.S. lawmakers, meanwhile, are calling for the imposition of a no-fly zone and even sending arms to the Libyan dictator's ragtag foes.
"We have joined with allies in making clear that Colonel Gadhafi must go. He has lost all legitimacy. We cannot be halfway about that goal," Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry, D-Mass, said Wednesday, urging the administration to be ready to enforce a no-fly zone over the North African nation "as necessary."
The turmoil in Libya poses a growing dilemma for President Barack Obama as he grapples with the most serious foreign crisis to erupt on his watch. He finds himself caught between a desire to avoid U.S. meddling in what have been indigenous Arab uprisings over poverty, joblessness and the denial of basic rights and sitting by as Gadhafi looses fresh onslaughts against population centers lost to the rebels.
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"I think the United States has a unique problem in the world. It can't do too little, but it can't do too much," said Steve Clemons of the New America Foundation, one of a number of outside experts who's been consulted by the White House on the uprisings sweeping the Middle East.
The administration is also deeply concerned that the longer the upheaval persists, the greater the danger that al Qaida or other extremists could find a new safe haven in Libya from which to plot attacks on U.S. and allied targets.
"One of our biggest concerns is Libya descending into chaos and becoming a giant Somalia," Secretary of State Hillary Clinton testified Wednesday before Kerry's panel. "It's right now not something that we see in the offing but many of the al Qaida activists in Afghanistan and later in Iraq came from Libya."
The pressure on Obama to intervene is coming at home and abroad.
Noting that Libyan rebel leaders aren't asking for foreign troops, Kerry warned that the international community "cannot sit on the sidelines while (Gadhafi's) airplanes are allowed to bomb and strafe."
Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Joseph Lieberman, a Connecticut independent who caucuses with majority Senate Democrats, also have endorsed a no-fly zone, and called for arming the rebels who control Libya's eastern wing and several western cities.
McCain, a Vietnam War-era Navy pilot, dismissed suggestions by U.S. commanders that enforcing an air exclusion zone would be costly and complicated.
"I love the military," he told the Atlantic Council, a policy institute, on Tuesday. "But they always seem to find reasons why you can't do something rather than why you can."
In Libya, meanwhile, the motley alliance of poorly armed civilians and military defectors fighting to end Gadhafi's 42-year rule faced new attacks, driving off an assault on the eastern town of Brega. The western city of Zawiya remained under a blockade that has strangled food and medical supplies for its estimated 100,000 residents.
The fighting in Brega, coupled with rising U.S. demand, drove oil prices above $100 for the first time since September 2008.
The price run-up is being felt at the pumps — a potential brake on the fragile U.S. economic recovery that could hurt Obama politically.
"Here's the downside. Americans are spending 10 percent of disposable income at $87 a barrel . . . . What this does is create an economic problem and a political problem," said Kevin Book, managing director of the research firm ClearView Energy Partners in Washington.
International aid organizations, meanwhile, expressed deep concerns over conditions inside Libya, where hospitals are struggling with casualties and food supplies are dwindling.
A no-fly zone is among the military options that the Pentagon is preparing for Obama, U.S. officials said. Not only would it ground Gadhafi's air force, but it could prevent him from flying more African mercenaries in to support his forces.
For now, however, the administration isn't going beyond saying that two amphibious assault ships, the USS Kersarge and the USS Ponce, that entered the Mediterranean Sea on Wednesday, could be used for humanitarian operations and emergency evacuations of foreigners.
The Pentagon appears especially reluctant to take on a third conflict in the Muslim world as it strives to bring its budget under control and avoid further stressing U.S. forces badly strained by the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Testifying on Wednesday before the House Armed Services Committee, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates called for an end to the "loose talk" about U.S. military options in Libya and warned anew that enforcing a no-fly zone would involving destroying Gadhafi's air defenses.
"Let's just call a spade a spade. A no-fly zone begins with an attack on Libya to destroy air defenses. Then you can fly planes around the country and not worry about our guys being shot down," he said.
Backing up his boss, Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that he couldn't confirm reports that Gadhafi's air force has strafed protesters.
A no-fly zone also risks dragging the U.S. deeper into what has become a civil war "because that necessarily means . . . taking sides," said a senior U.S. official, who requested anonymity to speak more freely. "That may well end up being a necessary step. Who knows? But there is a lot of cavalier advocacy for a no-fly zone without appreciating what it is."
U.S. military intervention carries other serious consequences. They include major setbacks to Obama's efforts to repair the damage to relations with Russia, China and the Arab world dealt by the Iraq war and other policies under the former Bush administration.
Russia and China, veto-wielding permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, have made it clear that they won't go beyond the arms embargo, travel ban and other sanctions imposed on Libya on Saturday.
The U.S. and its NATO allies have acted without U.N. authorization before. They imposed a no-fly zone over northern Iraq to protect minority Kurds after the 1991 Gulf War, and staged a 1999 air campaign to halt Serbian onslaughts against minority ethnic Albanians in Kosovo.
But Obama appears unwilling for now to engage in a bruising diplomatic battle.
U.S. officials worry that U.S. intervention could fuel anti-American anger and bolster Islamic extremists among Muslim populations seething over the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, abuse of detainees, U.S. support for Israel and decades of U.S. backing of the region's autocrats.
"The last thing we want to do is create an opening that others can exploit," said the senior U.S. official.
Arab League Secretary General Amr Moussa suggested after the 22-member organization met in Cairo on Wednesday that it could enforce a no-fly zone, raising the possibility that Arab militaries could take the lead in an operation in which the U.S. would provide critical, but quiet, support.
"Even if an Egypt or Morocco send only a few planes, this would be hugely important in terms of the political legitimacy of the operation," said David Cortright, director of policy studies at the University of Notre Dame's Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies.
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