WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama demanded Thursday that the embattled Libyan leader, Col. Moammar Gadhafi, “step down and leave” immediately and said he would consider a full range of options to stem the bloodshed there, though he did not commit the United States to any direct military action.
In his most forceful response to the near-civil war in Libya, Obama said the U.S. would consider imposing a “no-fly zone” over the country — a step his defense secretary, Robert Gates, warned a day earlier would carry major risks, requiring the U.S. to destroy Libya’s air defenses.
Obama said the U.S. and the world were outraged by Gadhafi’s “appalling violence against the Libyan people.” Speaking after he met with President Felipe Calderon of Mexico at the White House, he declared, “Moammar Gadhafi has lost the legitimacy to lead and must leave.”
The president’s statement, while robust, left important questions unanswered: Where would Gadhafi go, given the lack of countries that have offered him sanctuary? And what kind of intervention, beyond airlifting refugees on military planes, would the U.S. be willing to undertake?
Obama avoided using the phrase “no-fly zone,” even as he confirmed it was one of the options on the table. He emphasized a strong preference for the Libyan people to be masters of their own future, much as the Egyptian protesters were able to oust President Hosni Mubarak without foreign help.
The president’s remarks illustrate the problem confronting the White House: Libya now looks less like a Facebook-fueled rebellion and more like an African civil war of the kind that the U.S. has tried to avoid. With forces loyal to Gadhafi staging a desperate counterattack to seize rebel-controlled cities, Obama acknowledged that Libya could descend into a bloody stalemate.
In such a situation, there are few realistic — let alone attractive — military options for the U.S., which is already entangled in two other wars. Even limited options, like a no-fly-zone intended to prevent Libyan planes from shooting at their own people, are drawing opposition from some European allies and would be unlikely to win the approval of the U.N. Security Council.
Obama’s top national security advisers have disagreed in public, with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton sounding more receptive to a no-fly-zone than Gates. Testifying before the House Foreign Affairs Committee on Tuesday, Clinton said that “there are arguments that would favor it, questions that would be raised about, but it is under active consideration.”
In his testimony before the House Appropriations Committee, Gates said, “Let’s just call a spade a spade,” before going on to describe how a no-fly zone would involve destroying Libya’s air defense systems so that U.S. planes could fly without fear of being shot down.
Some of the policy differences, analysts said, reflect institutional biases. Pentagon leaders often dramatize the costs of military action to test the commitment of civilian leaders.