The prominent role played by the United States in carrying out and commanding the initial coalition attacks on Libya appeared to extend far beyond President Obama’s description of a narrow mission in which U.S. forces would play only a supporting part.
Senior U.S. military officials continued Sunday to describe the U.S. involvement as “limited” in extent and duration. They emphasized plans to relinquish command and control responsibilities to coalition partners within days. They repeated Obama’s pledge that no U.S. ground troops would be deployed.
But administration officials and military leaders came under a barrage of questions — raised by members of Congress, outside experts and reporters — about the parameters of U.S. participation and the operation’s goals, especially if Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi does not capitulate.
“There have been lots of options which have been discussed, but I think it’s very uncertain how this ends,” Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, acknowledged on CBS’s “Face the Nation.’’
Mullen, who appeared on five television talk shows, was pressed repeatedly to define the mission and its objectives. “I think circumstances will drive where this goes in the future,” he said on CNN’s “State of the Union.’’
Could it end with Gaddafi remaining in power? “That’s certainly, potentially, one outcome,” Mullen said on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” using language he repeated in other interviews. “I wouldn’t go so far as to say we’re not going to have airplanes over Libya in three or four days.”
In a briefing for reporters traveling with Obama in South America, National Security Adviser Thomas E. Donilon said that command would be transferred, possibly to NATO, in “days, not weeks,” and described the goal of the first phase of the mission as “crystal clear.”
“The focus right now was on a direct threat to citizens” of Libya, he said, “in response to requests” from Arab governments and under last week’s U.N. resolution authorizing member states to take “all necessary measures” to protect civilians. The result of the first phase has been establishment of a no-fly zone that Pentagon officials said now extended from Tripoli in the west to Benghazi in the east, and, as Donilon said, to “prevent what could have been a catastrophe in Benghazi” as Gaddafi’s military forces began a major attack on the city Saturday.
Donilon said that the United States had brought its “unique capabilities” at the outset of the operation to “simultaneously in a single evening . . . go after” Libya’s air defenses and capabilities, allowing French and British planes to then establish a no-fly zone over Libya.
“This is a limited-in-scope-duration-and-task operation,” Donilon said of the U.S. role. U.S. forces will quickly move into the background, he said, providing jamming of Libyan government communications, surveillance and intelligence, and refueling for coalition aircraft.
Donilon and Mullen said that while the short-term goal was to remove the threat to Libyan civilians, other efforts would bring about Gaddafi’s increasing international isolation, including previously adopted economic sanctions, an arms embargo, and a travel ban on members of his family and government, and help persuade his remaining supporters in Libya to abandon him.
But they stressed that while Obama has called for Gaddafi to step down, unseating him is not an objective of the military operation.
Lawmakers commenting on the weekend’s events were divided. Sen. Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.) said that Obama should seek a declaration of war from Congress and questioned who would emerge in control of Libya. “We really have not discovered who it is in Libya that we are trying to support,” Lugar said said on “Face the Nation.” “Obviously, the people that are against Gaddafi, but who?”
Donilon responded that the administration had made direct contact Sunday with leaders of the Libyan National Transitional Council, the opposition governing body in Benghazi. The opposition leaders said that “actions we have taken have prevented catastrophe there,” he noted.
Rep. Howard P. “Buck” McKeon (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, voiced concern about “the absence of clear political objectives for our country” and the risk of “entrenching the United States in a humanitarian mission whose scope and duration are not known at this point and cannot be controlled by us.”
A U.N. resolution, McKeon said, “is not and should not be confused for a political and military strategy.”
Donilon repeatedly stressed Obama’s close involvement in every step of the operation, despite the president’s decision to carry on with his planned South America trip. Obama, he said, had been in constant contact with allies, military leaders and members of his national security team. The president made no public comment about Libya on Sunday.
Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, who has also left the country on a trip to Russia, told reporters traveling with him Sunday that he supported Obama’s approach, even as he defended his previous skepticism about the mission as part of a necessary “spirited debate” that the White House should encourage before going to war.
On March 12, Gates said the U.S. military could easily impose a no-fly zone over Libya but questioned “whether it is a wise thing to do.”
Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.), on “Meet the Press,” said Obama had allayed early concerns about possible “mission creep.” The operation, he said, “has been very carefully limited,” Levin said. “After the air is cleared of any threats, there’s going to be a handoff to our allies, and this mission will then be carried on by French, by British and by Arab countries.”
Danish, Canadian and Belgian air forces have joined the British and French in the no-fly patrols. Qatar is also expected to send jets, but the participation of other Arab countries is unknown.
Some analysts recalled that earlier administrations, in operations in the Balkans, Afghanistan and Iraq, had also assured Americans that campaigns would be short.
“Low-balling expectations is probably penny-wise and pound-foolish,” said Thomas Donnelly, director of the Center for Defense Studies at the American Enterprise Institute. “The worst thing you can do, like Afghanistan or like Iraq, is say that this is going to be short, sweet and easy. That’s a possibility, even a probability,” in Libya, he said, “but it’s not a certainty.”
Andrew J. Bacevich, a professor at Boston University and the author of “The Limits of Power: The End of the American Exceptionalism,” said he believes the mission will probably expand because the proponents of intervention will not be satisfied simply with forcing Gaddafi’s forces to cease their offensive.
“I would expect that sort of partial success would lead to calls for expanding operations in order to achieve regime change,” he said.
Staff writers Greg Jaffe in Washington and Craig Whitlock, traveling with Gates, and Perry Bacon Jr., traveling with Obama, contributed to this report.