Rep. Mike Coffman (R-Colo.) said the administration’s efforts to label the Libya mission a humanitarian intervention were dishonest. “This is the most muddled definition of an operation probably in U.S. military history,” he said. “To say this is not about regime change is crazy. Of course, it is about regime change.”
Gates acknowledged that the U.N. Security Council resolution approving a no-fly zone over Libya had authorized only the interdiction of Libyan aircraft, the enforcement of an arms embargo and the use of military force to protect civilians. But he defended the efforts to degrade Gaddafi’s military as a means of protecting the Libyan people from further attacks by the government.
The CIA has told lawmakers in classified briefings that Gaddafi’s forces have moved into towns where there are no reporters and killed a “substantial number” of people, said Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), chairwoman of the Senate Select Intelligence Committee, on Thursday. She advocated expanding the U.S. objectives to include Gaddafi’s ouster.
Mullen and Gates said that the U.S. level of participation in the coalition would begin to decline significantly in the coming days with NATO taking over command. In the Senate, several lawmakers voiced concern that reducing the U.S. role would lessen the effectiveness of the attacks on Gaddafi’s ground forces. They pressed Mullen and Gates for assurances that American AC-130 aircraft, which are among the most effective weapons in the U.S. arsenal against ground forces, would remain in the fight.
“I just can’t understand how we’re going to meet the objective that you’ve identified without going forward in a forceful fashion than we are right now,” said Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.).
In the House, mainly Republican lawmakers complained that the United States did not know enough about the rebel forces challenging Gaddafi’s decades-long rule. “We may not know much about the opposition or the rebels, but we know a great deal about Gaddafi,” Gates replied tersely. “This guy has been a huge problem for the United States for a long time.”
A senior administration official said the congressional criticism reflected the lack of options.
“There are appropriately a lot of questions being raised, but apart from those who want to go further and impose regime change militarily, there are not a lot of alternatives put forward,” said the official, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “It’s a situation that involves bad choices and worse choices.”
Staff writers Mary Beth Sheridan and Greg Miller contributed to this report.