President Obama on Wednesday condemned Libya's violent crackdown against a widening anti-government movement, saying the "suffering and bloodshed is outrageous, and it is unacceptable."
But Obama did not call for a change in Libya's autocratic government or announce specific sanctions that the United States would support to punish the country for actions that he said "violate international norms and every standard of common decency."
"Like all governments, the Libyan government has a responsibility to refrain from violence, to allow humanitarian assistance to reach those in need and to respect the rights of its people," the president said in his first public comments about the Libyan revolt. "It must be held accountable for its failure to meet those responsibilities and face the cost of continued violations of human rights."
Obama delivered his statement amid criticism of his muted response to the violence and a growing sense that, as the Arab Middle East and North Africa churn through a period of abrupt change, the White House remains behind on the events and overly cautious in responding to them.
Such concerns have been expressed across the political spectrum, and they have put the Obama administration in the position of following its European allies.
But administration officials say they are concerned about the safety of hundreds of Americans still in Libya, whose security Obama said remains his "highest priority."
"In any situation, our foremost concern has to be for the safety and security of our own citizens," Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Wednesday. She added: "We're encouraging Americans to leave Libya" immediately.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy called Wednesday for the European Union to immediately adopt a set of sanctions against Libya, saying the "international community cannot stand idly by in the face of these massive human rights violations."
France has a larger diplomatic and economic footprint in Libya, and several human rights advocates in the United States say the Obama administration's real leverage with Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi comes through its European allies.
Sarkozy said sanctions might include measures from "bringing [Libyan officials] to justice, to prohibiting access to E.U. territory, and to monitoring financial transactions."
Obama said he has ordered his staff to assemble a range of options. Those include reimposing the sanctions against Libya that the United States lifted seven years ago - a step that Senate Foreign Relations Chairman John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) has recommended.
Tom Malinowski, the Washington director of Human Rights Watch, said Obama could quickly authorize the U.S. Treasury to have banks freeze the assets of Libyan officials, impose sanctions unilaterally and threaten to investigate killings through the International Criminal Court.
That last step may be in the offing. U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said in a statement Wednesday that the U.N. Human Rights Council intends to consider establishing "an international investigative inquiry" into the Libyan violence during a special session scheduled for Friday. Clinton will attend the council's regular session three days later.
"The people that they need to get to are the people around Gaddafi," Malinowski said of the administration's efforts. "Gaddafi himself is unreachable. He's going to go down fighting and has no incentive to appease the international community. But Libya's fate is not necessarily in Gaddafi's hands. It's in the hands of people who must decide whether or not to follow his orders."
Obama praised a U.N. Security Council resolution, passed unanimously Tuesday, calling it "a clear message that it condemns the violence in Libya, supports accountability for the perpetrators and stands with the Libyan people."
But people close to the process said the United States remained mostly quiet during the debate over the resolution. The inability of some countries to win stronger language means that even tougher action will not pass anytime soon.
Staff writers Mary Beth Sheridan and Craig Whitlock in Washington and Colum Lynch at the United Nations contributed to this report.