NATO officially took control of the mission in Libya on Thursday as the United States prepares to take more of a backseat role in the operation, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Mike Mullen said.
During the first of two congressional hearings, Adm. Mullen and Defense Secretary Robert Gates stressed that the United States’ offensive operations in Libya will begin to diminish sharply now that NATO has taken the lead on enforcing the no-fly zone and on protecting civilians.
“We will not be taking an active part in strike activities and believe our allies can sustain this for some period of time,” Gates told the House Armed Services Committee.
The U.S. military’s contribution to the effort will focus on support roles, such as electronic warfare, aerial refueling, airlift, search and rescues, and intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance.
Gates, who joined other top administration officials in telling lawmakers privately on Wednesday that the U.S. has made no decision on sending arms to the opposition forces, acknowledged that the rebels need training and command-and-control assets.
It’s pretty much a pickup ball game at this point,” Gates said.
But Gates stressed that Washington does not need to take the lead. “There are plenty of other sources for it than the United States,” he said.
Responding to congressional concerns about the mission's scope, Gates reiterated that the coalition’s goal is not to oust Muammar el-Qaddafi.
“The military mission is a limited one and does not include regime change. Personally, I felt strongly about that,” Gates said. “We’ve tried regime change before, and sometimes it’s worked and sometimes it’s taken 10 years.”
Pointing to the war in Iraq where U.S. troops have been engaged since 2003, Gates cited the "enormous human and financial cost” of ousting a leader.
Rather than the coalition forcing Qaddafi out, Gates said he expects the Libyan leader's removal to happen over time through political and economic measures. The coalition strikes on Qaddafi’s military assets force him “into a very different set of choices and behaviors in the future,” he added.
Lawmakers from both parties--who were briefed in a classified session on Wednesday afternoon by Mullen, Gates, and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton--also raised concerns about being shut out during White House discussions on whether to strike Libya.
President Obama called lawmakers to the White House on March 18, one day after he had made a decision to strike in Libya and one day before the operation began. But lawmakers, even members of Obama’s own party, said they should have been involved in the run-up to the decision to strike.
“We do not feel we should be waiting until a final decision is made,” House Armed Services Committee ranking member Adam Smith, D-Wash., an Obama ally, said. “There were a lot of things beings discussed in the weeks leading up to this.”
Lawmakers also pushed Gates on the operation's cost. The Pentagon has said that the air and sea strikes have cost the United States $550 million through Monday. Now that the United States is taking on more of a support role, those expenses will drop precipitously to $40 million a month. Mullen said that U.S. participation will decrease “dramatically” over the next several days.
Gates, however, acknowledged that absorbing the costs for the Libya operation within the base defense budget will be difficult. But he said he believes that the military can tap its budget for overseas contingencies --including the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan--without adding to war costs.