Specter of Rebel Rout Helps Shift U.S. Policy on Libya
By MARK LANDLER and DAN BILEFSKY
WASHINGTON — The prospect of a deadly siege of the rebel stronghold in Benghazi, Libya, has produced a striking shift in tone from the Obama administration, which is now pushing for the United Nations to authorize aerial bombing of Libyan tanks and heavy artillery to try to halt the advance of forces loyal to Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi.
The administration, which remains deeply reluctant to be drawn into an armed conflict in yet another Muslim country, is nevertheless backing a resolution in the Security Council that would give countries a broad range of options for aiding the Libyan rebels, including military steps that go well beyond a no-flight zone.
Administration officials — who have been debating a no-flight zone for weeks — concluded that such a step now would be “too little, too late” for rebels who have been pushed back to Benghazi. That suggests more aggressive measures, which some military analysts have called a no-drive zone, to prevent Colonel Qaddafi from moving tanks and artillery into Benghazi.
The United States is insisting that any military action would have to be carried out by an international coalition, including Libya’s Arab neighbors.
The rapid advance of forces loyal to Colonel Qaddafi, combined with rising calls from the Arab world to prevent a rout of the opposition, has changed the calculations of the administration, which had clung to a belief that interfering in a Middle East uprising could provoke an anti-American backlash.
“The turning point was really the Arab League statement on Saturday,” Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Wednesday to reporters traveling with her in Cairo. “That was an extraordinary statement in which the Arab League asked for Security Council action against one of its own members.”
Mrs. Clinton said she was hopeful that the Security Council would vote no later than Thursday. The American ambassador to the United Nations, Susan E. Rice, is in intensive negotiations over the language of a resolution, sponsored by Lebanon, another Arab state, and backed by France and Britain.
It is unclear how much the administration is willing to put on the line in Libya, given its deep aversion to being entangled in another war and its clear calculation that Libya does not constitute as vital a security interest to the United States as other countries in the region, notably Egypt or Saudi Arabia.
Some administration officials voiced the hope that the mere threat of military action could prompt Colonel Qaddafi to show some restraint.
Still, interviews with several administration officials suggested that events on the ground were forcing its hand. “The regime’s military gains have gotten everyone’s attention,” said a senior official, speaking on condition of anonymity.
President Obama is under pressure from both foreign leaders and allies in Congress to take decisive action. The French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, sent a letter to the United States and other members of the Security Council, urging them to vote for the Lebanese resolution authorizing a no-flight zone, saying that the world had only days, or even hours, to head off a Qaddafi victory.
On Wednesday, one of Colonel Qaddafi’s sons, Seif al-Islam, urged the rebels to leave the country, saying, “Within 48 hours everything will be finished. Our forces are almost in Benghazi.”
Senator John Kerry, the Massachusetts Democrat who is chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said he regretted that the debate in Washington over how to respond to Libya had dragged on so long, allowing Colonel Qaddafi to regain his footing.
“I don’t like that we’ve lost this time,” Mr. Kerry said during a speech in Washington. “It’s compacted the choices, diminished the options. And it’s changed the state of play somewhat.”
Administration officials contend that a no-flight zone alone would not be effective, in part because they say it could not be set up before April.
Among the other measures being proposed by the United States: sending foreign soldiers to Libya to advise the rebels, or financing them with some of the $32 billion belonging to the Qaddafi regime, which have been frozen by the Treasury Department. Rebels could use the money to buy weapons, officials said.
Neither of these steps, however, would come in time to stave off an assault by Colonel Qaddafi’s forces on Benghazi.
“What everybody is focused on is drawing a line, literally in the sand, around Benghazi, to prevent Qaddafi’s forces from capturing the city and staging a bloodbath,” said Tom Malinowski, the Washington director of Human Rights Watch. “If Qaddafi wins, it could kill the moment in the entire Middle East.”
But more aggressive military options might make it difficult for a resolution to satisfy Russia and China, two veto-wielding members of the Security Council, which have both opposed such measures in the past. Germany, India and other council members have also expressed skepticism about a no-flight zone.
On Wednesday, Russia pressed for a resolution calling for a cease-fire, but was rebuffed, said Vitaly Churkin, the Russian ambassador to the United Nations. He said Security Council members had added elements that were far-reaching and required serious political consideration.
With the United States already fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, the administration is fearful of straining an already overstretched military and of being seen as engaged in nation building in the region. “The United States is pretty busy with two wars, and we don’t want a third,” a senior official said.
But Britain, France, and Lebanon were adamant that time was running out. And Libya’s deputy to the United Nations, Ibrahim Dabbashi, who last month broke with the Qaddafi regime, warned that if the international community did not intervene in the next 10 hours, there was a risk of genocide, as bands of mercenaries sent by Mr. Qaddafi attacked the rebel-held city of Ajdabiya.
Privately, some European officials expressed frustration with the Obama administration, with one saying he believed it was supporting strong measures in an attempt to draw a veto.
The draft resolution would consist of a no-flight zone coupled with a beefing up of sanctions against Libya, including adding more names to the list of Libyan officials who face international travel bans.
Diplomats said a final draft resolution would be worked out Wednesday and likely put to a vote on Thursday. To pass the Security Council, it would need to win nine votes and to avoid a veto from any of the five permanent members: the United States, Britain, France, Russia and China.
Mark Landler reported from Washington and Dan Bilefsky from the United Nations. Helene Cooper contributed reporting from Washington and Steven Lee Myers from Cairo.