Speaking to reporters in El Salvador, his final stop on a five-day Latin American trip, Obama said he had “no doubt” that the United States would turn over command of the Libyan operation in “days, not weeks.”
“When this transition takes place, it is not going to be our planes that are maintaining the no-fly zone,” Obama said in an appearance with President Mauricio Funes in San Salvador, the capital. “It is not going to be our ships that are necessarily enforcing the arms embargo. That’s precisely what the other nations are going to do.”
The issue is an urgent one for Obama, who was reluctant to open a military front in a third Muslim country and who has said the United States wants to quickly turn over command of Operation Odyssey Dawn, as the military campaign in Libya is known.
But choosing which nation or alliance will lead the operation once the United States steps aside has proved to be a complicated diplomatic process, shaped by the domestic political considerations facing some governments uncertain of the mission’s merits.
Turkey, the only Muslim-majority member of NATO, had opposed proposals that would place the Libyan operation under the alliance’s control.
Obama called Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Monday evening, and White House officials suggested Tuesday that Turkish opposition to a large NATO role in running the operation has faded.
On Tuesday, Obama called the emir of Qatar, Sheik Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, the only Arab leader to pledge military assets to the mission. He also called French President Nicolas Sarkozy and British Prime Minister David Cameron.
According to U.S., French, and British officials, NATO will take over, with the command working out of different operation centers, including naval facilities in Naples, Italy, and potentially air bases in Turkey.
“NATO will be in charge,” said a U.S. official, speaking on the condition of anonymity while sensitive final discussions continue.
A steering committee of representatives from participating countries would maintain political oversight, providing a non-NATO veneer important to Turkey, where public opinion is mixed over the Libyan mission. The model is similar to that of the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan, where troops belonging to NATO nations participate alongside non-NATO contributors.
That structure would also allow Arab participation in the decision-making. The agreement, one U.S. official said, amounts to a compromise reached after Sarkozy, in his phone conversation with Obama, eased off his previous insistence that NATO not be in charge.
Ben Rhodes, the deputy national security adviser for strategic communications, said “the leaders . . . agreed that NATO should play a key role in the command structure going forward for the enforcement of the no-fly zone.”