NATO is reportedly stepping up its airstrikeson Libyan government command and control centers, but Defense Secretary Robert Gates stuck to Washington's position that Libyan leader Muammar el-Qaddafi was not the main target. He met with his British counterpart Liam Fox for several hours on Tuesday, and both struck a measured, conciliatory tone in their joint press conference.
Fox's rhetoric of recent days had suggested those behind attacks against Libyan civilians risk being targeted themselves, while Gates has continued to assert there will be no American boots on the ground in Libya.
During their meeting, the two secretaries discussed ways to increase precise "targeting" of Qaddafi's compound and ground forces.
To Gates, those compounds have always been legitimate targets. “And we have taken them out elsewhere,” he told reporters. “Those centers are the ones that are commanding the forces that are … [committing] violations of humanitarian rights such as in Misurata,” he said, referring to the besieged city where some of the bloodiest battles have taken place.
Although Qaddafi's forces decried the bombing on the compound as an assassination attempt on the Libyan leader, Gates stressed that the coalition is not “specifically” targeting Qaddafi. Fox backed him up.
“As long as that government continues to target civilians … we will continue to regard all their command and control mechanisms as legitimate targets,” he said. “Our duty and resolve will not waver as long as that civilian population remains at risk from an aggressive, wicked regime, which has waged war on its own population.”
However, there are concerns in the U.K .about how long the conflict will drag on without resolution in sight. There weren't many specifics raised after the meeting. Fox would only tell reporters that there were “good discussions on how to better exploit emerging opportunities on the ground." The discussions also included Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Adm. Mike Mullen and British Chief of Defense Staff Gen. David Richards.
Last week, President Obama approved the use of armed Predator drones to take out targets in Libya, agreeing to fly a maximum of two Predators over Libya at any given time. Gates insisted last week that the modest contribution to the international effort wasn't a sign of mission creep, but rather a "very limited additional role on our part, but it does provide some additional capabilities to NATO.”
As for Syria, where strongman Bashar al-Assad continues an unrelenting crackdown on demonstrators, the secretaries both drew a line regarding intervention. Gates pointed to immense international backing for action in Libya, which began with what he called the “unprecedented” Arab League resolution calling for a no-fly zone, as well as the push by the the Gulf Cooperation Council and the United Nations. That hasn't happened with Syria.
Fox said that each political situation must be individually evaluated. "We can’t do everything all the time," he said.