The US is tempering its tough talk on Libya with a dose of reality, explaining that even a no-fly zone over the country would require a military attack on Muammar Gaddafi’s regime.
Statements by Defence Secretary Robert Gates and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton illustrated the Obama administration’s effort to rein in “loose talk” about military options to force Gaddafi from power.
It was an acknowledgement that, short of an unlikely military offensive by a US-led coalition, the options for international action to stem the violence appear highly limited, even as armed rebels press their fight against troops still loyal to the Gaddafi regime.
“Let’s just call a spade a spade: a no-fly zone begins with an attack on Libya to destroy the air defences,” Mr Gates told a congressional panel. The Pentagon could get the job done if ordered by the president, he said, but noted that an attack would require more air power than a single US aircraft carrier, which typically carries about 75 planes.
“It is a big operation in a big country,” Mr Gates said.
The unspoken subtext was that, with US forces already deeply committed in Afghanistan, still winding down military operations in Iraq, and on the watch for surprises in Iran and elsewhere in the volatile Persian Gulf region, the risks associated with military action in Libya might be unacceptable.
Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that despite media reports of Libyan aircraft attacking rebel areas, the Pentagon had not confirmed any air attacks. He also said it must be assumed that Libya’s air defences are substantial.
Alluding to Mr Gates’ announcement a day earlier that he had ordered two US warships into the Mediterranean in case they are needed for civilian evacuations or humanitarian relief, Ms Clinton said in separate testimony that the crisis calls for a mix of diplomacy and defence.
“We are taking no option off the table so long as the Libyan government continues to turn its guns on its own people,” she said. But she told two separate Senate subcommittees that the government was far from being in a position to commit to a military response, even as she outlined grave concern about the instability affecting the North African country.
“One of our biggest concerns is Libya descending into chaos and becoming a giant Somalia,” Ms Clinton said. “It is 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 and came from eastern Libya, which is now the so-called free area.”
Egyptian officials said two US warships passed through the Suez Canal on Wednesday on their way to the Mediterranean Sea, closer to Libya. The amphibious assault ships USS Kearsarge and USS Ponce entered the canal from the Red Sea. The officials said the Kearsarge carried 42 helicopters.