The Obama administration is eager to transfer military command to NATO to portray the six-day-old operation as an international humanitarian mission, rather than a U.S.-led offensive in another Muslim country.
Obama is also facing mounting pressure from Congress about the operation’s goals and the extent of U.S. involvement. The president has promised to turn over control of the mission within “days, not weeks,” with the United States assuming a supporting role.
Whatever happens in NATO, the coalition may continue to have a U.S. face. NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said Thursday that leadership of the operations in Libya would be determined by the alliance’s normal command structure, which would mean an American officer would be in charge. However, a senior U.S. official said Thursday night that the task force overseeing the Libya operation would be led by a Canadian, Lt. Gen. Charles Bouchard.
Rasmussen said that NATO had agreed only to assume responsibility for enforcing a no-fly zone and an arms embargo against Libya. Alliance members were debating whether NATO would take on the more controversial role of protecting civilians on the ground — by striking Libyan tanks and troops, not just its planes, he said.
“We have not decided yet whether we will take on the broader responsiblity,” Rasmussen said in an interview with CNN’s “The Situation Room.”
He played down the possibility of a split, saying that “there is unity within NATO.”
American diplomats said NATO members had agreed in principle on a broader deal to include the entire civilian protection mission. Clinton said Thursday evening that the 28 NATO countries had authorized military authorities to develop a plan for that operation.
A senior administration official said in a conference call with reporters that the military operations plan would be finished over the weekend. “Then we need to execute it. The key issue here is a political agreement. Up to this point, there was no agreement in the alliance,” he said, speaking under ground rules of anonymity.
One Western diplomat said, however, that the Turks had balked on reaching a final agreement because of their uneasiness with the coalition’s ground attacks, which have raised concerns in the Arab world over possible civilian deaths.
“The Turks don’t like the [air]strikes,” the diplomat said, speaking on the condition of anonymity.
As the diplomatic maneuvering intensified, a second Arab country announced that it would send fighter jets to help enforce the no-fly zone. The United Arab Emirates pledged 12 aircraft, joining Qatar in the mission. The Obama administration has been eager to enlist Middle Eastern states to counter perceptions that Western powers are attacking an Arab state.