The United States will support a joint British-French resolution to levy tough sanctions against Libya at the United Nations on Friday, but will try to dampen expectations that the world body will agree to them anytime soon.
Until now, the administration refused to say that direct sanctions were on the table, preferring to present that option when a united front with European allies could be mustered against the Libyan regime.
White House officials cautioned on Thursday night that the process of sanctions takes time, and the world community should not expect an immediate resolution. They also said that President Obama did not have a "bottom line" for the type of sanctions he would accept but in his conversations with world leaders had stressed that penalites be directed to members of the regime, not toward the Libyan public.
The U.K. and France want the U.N. to propose a global arms embargo against Libya, to punish countries that do business with the counry and to freeze financial accounts of Qaddafi worldwide. France, which has warships at the ready off the North African coast, wants a multilateral "no fly" zone canopy set up over the country. The U.N. would also place human rights monitors inside the country.
Earlier Thursday, White House press secretary Jay Carney said that Obama aides were considering a "range of options" with European allies.
Separately, the Treasury Department will join a European initiative to crack down on outside bank accounts owned by Libyan leader Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi and members of his regime.
Responding to criticism that the administration was slow to act, Carney said that “[w]hen the international community comes together and speaks with one voice, it has a powerful impact in terms of persuading a government like Libya’s to do the right thing, to stop the violence it's perpetrating on its own people."
U.S. officials have said that their top priority is to evacuate Americans still in the country. A senior administration official said that all embassy operations in the country had ceased as of today.
In his first statement on Libya's violent crisis, President Obama did not mention Qaddafi by name but condemned his regime's alleged slaughter of innocents.
In a twist, however, U.S. intelligence officials believe that Islamic militants, including some affiliated with al-Qaida, are among the most effective fighters against the Qaddafi government and don't wish to intervene in a way that would harm American interests later on.
Obama spoke late Thursday with European allies, including French President Nicholas Sarkozy. He spoke this morning with Turkish Prime Mnister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and expressed "deep concern" about the violence, which continued in the capital city of Tripoli. CNN reported early Friday that protest groups captured the important port city of Brega in Eastern Libya.
The news that the U.S. would support the U.K. resolution was first reported by POLITICO.
Since the 1980s, the U.S., U.N., and the European nations have levied a bevy of sanctions on Libya for its participation in the bombing of Pan-Am Flight 103, for its efforts to proliferate a nuclear bomb and for human rights violations.
The United States formally lifted most of its sanctions against Libya in 2004, after the Qaddafi disclosed his nascent nuclear weapons program and agreed to give it up.
Obama has been criticized for refusing to directly call for Qaddafi's ouster. But the administration believes that direct U.S. intervention would be counter-productive, as it would tag any new government as American-backed, which could make it harder for that government to establish legitimacy. Since the early January revolution in Tunisia, the Obama administration has taken a measured approach as the protests spread, condemning violence in public and urging leaders of the current governments to make deep concessions to protesters.
The administration says it must balance any action it takes with concerns about the economic ramifications of a destablized Arab world, including the potential for a diasterous spike in oil prices, the footprint of the U.S. military, whose 5th fleet is headquartered an Bahrain, and the safety and security of Isreal, which regards the new regime in Egypt with a wary eye.
U.S. offiicals said a vote on sanctions could come as early as the latter half of next week.