By Craig Whitlock
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 2, 2011; 4:26 AM
Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates on Tuesday played down the likelihood that the United States would enforce a no-fly zone over Libya, citing numerous political obstacles and questioning the wisdom of taking military action against an additional Muslim country.
Gates said the Pentagon was preparing "a lot of options and contingencies" for President Obama to consider in response to the fighting in Libya and general instability in the region. Although Gates did not rule out establishing a no-fly zone to prevent Libyan ruler Moammar Gaddafi from carrying out airstrikes against rebel forces, he said such measures would have indirect consequences that "need to be considered very carefully."
For starters, Gates noted that the U.N. Security Council had not authorized military intervention in Libya and that NATO was also divided on the subject. He also suggested that such a military campaign could drain U.S. forces away from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
"We also have to think about frankly the use of the U.S. military in another country in the Middle East," he told reporters at a news conference. "So we are sensitive about all these things."
Although U.S. and European diplomats have openly discussed the possibility of enforcing a no-fly zone over Libya in recent days, U.S. military officials have tried to emphasize that such an operation would not be bloodless.
On Capitol Hill, Gen. James N. Mattis, the head of U.S. Central Command, told a Senate panel that it would be necessary to preemptively attack Libyan air-defense batteries and installations to ensure that they could not shoot down U.S. or NATO planes.
"It would be a military operation," he said. "It wouldn't be just telling people not to fly airplanes."
Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, echoed Mattis's warning about preemptive strikes on Libyan targets. "We'd have to work out way through it, do it in a safe manner and not put ourselves in jeopardy," he said in a joint appearance with Gates.
Mullen and Gates said that the Pentagon was aware of news reports that Gaddafi has ordered Libyan military aircraft to attack rebel targets but that they could not confirm whether such attacks have taken place. Gates also said that U.S. officials had not received requests from Libyan rebel leaders to provide air cover.
Gates did not spell out what other military options and contingencies are under consideration by the White House. He said, however, that he has directed two Navy ships, the Kearsarge and the Ponce, to sail to the Mediterranean in case they are needed for emergency evacuations or humanitarian relief. The two ships, which were in the Red Sea, entered the Suez Canal on Wednesday morning en route to the Mediterranean, the Associated Press reported.
Gates said 1,400 Marines assigned to the Kearsarge, an amphibious warfare ship, are fighting in Afghanistan. As a result, he said, 400 other Marines will be deployed to the ship from the United States.