WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. failure to act more swiftly and forcefully over Libya is allowing an "extraordinary opportunity" to slip away and Washington's reputation could be affected for decades by its response, a key senator said on Wednesday.
Fretting that time is running out for opponents of Muammar Gaddafi, Senator John Kerry, head of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, urged the United Nations to impose a no-fly zone over Libya and consider other steps to avert a humanitarian disaster.
Asked whether he would go further and push for arming the rebels directly, Kerry said: "I think all options have to be considered. They have to be on the table." But he stopped short of endorsing such a step.
Kerry's comments came as Gaddafi's army pounded the city of Misrata, the last big rebel stronghold in western Libya, with tank and artillery fire and fought for control of Ajdabiyah, a crucial city that acts as a gateway to Benghazi, the seat of Gaddafi's opposition.
Kerry, a Democrat and an ally of President Barack Obama on many issues, implicitly criticized the administration for failing to take bolder action while Gaddafi's opponents had the momentum.
"I don't like that we've lost this time," Kerry said. "It's compacted the choices, diminished the options. And it's changed the state of play somewhat.
"The calculation that many people in Libya might have made a week and a half, 10 days ago, if we'd started to announce and move certain things, might have been considerably different than the calculation that they might make today. And those calculations are critical in these kinds of events."
Kerry said it would be of "enormous national consequence" if the United States could use the demands for change in the Middle East to "affirm the value of democracy and deal a sharp blow to the forces of radicalism."
"We have to recognize the extraordinary opportunity that is staring us in the face. We also have to recognize the danger of failing to seize it," he added.
"How we respond today, right now, will in my judgment shape our strategic position in the entire Middle East and how Muslims around the world see us going forward probably for decades to come," Kerry said.
Reporting by David Alexander, editing by Anthony Boadle