White House defends Libya stance, debates options

WASHINGTON Wed Mar 9, 2011 8:31pm EST

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The White House on Wednesday strongly defended its response to the turmoil in Libya, insisting it has taken "dramatic action" and rebutting criticism that its consensus-based approach is too cautious.

As President Barack Obama's top advisers met to debate what to do next, Muammar Gaddafi's forces halted a rebel advance in the east of the oil-producing North African country and opposition forces suffered setbacks in the west.

A range of options were on the table in the White House situation room, including a "no-fly" zone to ground Gaddafi's warplanes, although U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates has already warned of the difficulties of such an action.

With Libyan rebels fragmented and disorganized and Gaddafi's forces successfully counter-attacking, the Obama administration has been struggling to craft a strategy that forces Gaddafi from power without entangling the United States in a new war in the Muslim world.

Despite its fear that Libya could become what Secretary of State Hillary Clinton last week called a "giant Somalia," Washington is reluctant to intervene militarily in a messy civil war, especially since the United Nations, NATO and countries in the region are divided on what should be done.

White House spokesman Jay Carney dismissed suggestions that Washington had failed to act with sufficient urgency.

"There has never been a situation where the international community, with leadership by the United States, has acted as quickly as it has to respond to this kind of situation," he said.

Clinton, CIA Director Leon Panetta, and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, attended Wednesday's meeting, but it was not expected to lead to any immediate change in U.S. strategy, Carney said.

The White House session came ahead of Thursday's meeting of NATO defense ministers, including Gates, in Brussels. A U.S. official said Libya options were being "teed up" for discussion there.

A top U.S. general said the United States military was prepared to quickly establish a "no-fly" zone over Libya if the international community decided on that option.

"I believe within a couple days, we would probably be able to implement a no-fly zone," General Raymond Odierno, commander of the U.S. Joint Forces Command told an audience at Harvard University in Massachusetts.

Odierno said it was important that any response to the turmoil in Libya have international backing.

LIBYA VERSUS BALKANS

The United States, embroiled in wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, has been stressing the need for international support for any intervention in Libya. On Tuesday, Clinton said Washington would not act without a U.N. Security Council resolution.

At the Security Council, where Britain and France are pushing for a resolution authorizing a no-fly zone, diplomats said the Americans had made clear they were not ready to press ahead with the measure.

While the idea of a no-fly zone over Libya is popular among some politicians in Washington, Obama administration officials have voiced reservations about its effectiveness in stopping attack helicopters and ground troops.

The White House has come under fire from some Republican and Democratic politicians, conservative commentators and others for what they say is its failure to match tough talk with action to help rebels force Gaddafi from power.

"The Obama administration is throwing out so many conflicting messages on Libya that they are blunting any potential pressure on the Libyan regime and weakening American credibility," said an editorial in The New York Times, a newspaper that is often supportive of Obama's policies.

The administration has frozen $30 billion in Libyan assets, backed U.N. sanctions, sent military transport aircraft to help evacuate refugees from neighboring Tunisia and put warships off the Libyan coast for possible humanitarian efforts.

"It is very important for people to understand the kind of dramatic action that has been taken with the leadership of this president and will continue to be taken as we move forward," Carney said.

He compared the international response to Libya with the reaction to the Balkan wars of the 1990s. It took three months to impose an arms embargo on Yugoslavia after Croatia declared independence, he said. In the case of Libya, just nine days.

On Capitol Hill, lawmakers like Republican Senator John McCain continued to call for U.S. military intervention. But others warned against it, especially unilateral action

"I am of the opinion that it is not a good idea to give weapons and military support to people who you do not know," said Senator Jim Webb, a Democrat and former secretary of the U.S. Navy.

(Additional reporting by Louis Charbonneau in New York and Phil Stewart, Jeff Mason, Susan Cornwell and Andrew Quinn in Washington; Editing by John O'Callaghan and Todd Eastham)

FILED UNDER: