With a critical showdown on the use of military force in Libya looming in the U.N. Security Council, friends and foes alike are baffled by the passive signals coming from the Obama administration.
Administration officials did not stand in the way of the recent Arab League communiqué calling for “all necessary steps to impose immediately a no-fly zone for Libyan military aircraft,” but neither did they encourage it.
White House officials have not seconded British and French calls for a no-fly operation, nor have they asked those traditional allies to take the lead themselves. Sources say there has been no backroom diplomatic arm-twisting of the Russians and Chinese, the veto-wielding members of the Security Council that are usually skeptical of such military interventions, but who may nevertheless balk at standing in opposition to a united Arab world.
“Everyone understands that Libya is a very difficult issue for President Obama, and that there are different views within the administration about the wisdom of getting militarily involved in another conflict in the Muslim world,” said one European diplomat. "But the fact that the United States is not leading or asking anyone else to lead is puzzling. We think the Americans are coming around towards supporting the no-fly operation, but no one is really sure. The signals coming from the administration are blurred."
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said she hopes a Security Council vote will come on Thursday on a broad range of actions against Libyan leader Muammar el-Qaddafi. If the body votes to authorize a no-fly operation, the United States may find itself drawn into a military conflict from that posture of passive-aggression.
The vote comes as skepticism both in the United States and abroad has grown about whether it is too late to impose a no-fly zone and if it would even be effective, given that Qaddafi has already used his firepower to drive back the rebels.
Clinton wouldn't predict any Security Council action but told reporters: “I don’t want to prejudge the outcome, but I think many countries that had a negative view about taking any action began to reconsider that following the Arab League statement.”
The calls for a no-fly zone on Capitol Hill have become more muted, with many lawmakers wondering if the move is too late.
“To fly around and watch Libyan tanks slaughter the Libyans to me is not a very effective response,” said Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich. “The French have the capability of doing it. If they favor it they can do it. But I’m leery about seeing the U.S. involved in another Muslim country in an act which is an invasion of their sovereignty."
Senate Intelligence Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif, was equally cautious.
“If there’s going to be a no-fly zone maybe the Arab alliance ought to do it,” she said. “It always comes down to the United States. Maybe it’s time if France feels strongly or the U.K., let them step up and do it. My view is we should not do it unless we are part of a totally unified effort.”
But Senate Foreign Relations Chairman John Kerry, D-Mass., one of the first lawmakers to urge action against Qaddafi, said “the world needs to respond immediately.”
“Now it's getting late,” Kerry said. “It's plenty late. I don’t know the answer whether it’s too late or not."
And Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., blamed the Obama administration's refusal to act.
“I understand being cautious because I don’t support interjecting ground troops and I don’t support arming opposition forces because I don’t know where the arms will go,” Graham said. “But the no-fly zone really will be a momentum changer and it’s the least we can do and it’s what we should do.”
“Obama owns Libya with Qaddafi,” he added. “We have a chance here and we’ve had it for a couple of weeks to interject in a positive way that could be, I think, outcome determinative. And everyday that we wait it becomes more difficult.”
Sara Sorcher contributed contributed to this article.