After facing grumbling and uneasiness amid reports it sent covert intelligence operatives into Libya, now the Obama administration is being criticized by some lawmakers for pulling back specialized U.S. gunships as it turns over command of the Libya no-fly zone to NATO.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen explained the evolving U.S. military role in Libya at grueling back-to-back hearings before House and Senate lawmakers Thursday. Air strikes over Libya have lessened over the past three days, apparently due to bad weather.
During a House Armed Services Committee hearing Thursday morning, Gates--who has made little secret of his misgivings about another major U.S. military intervention in the Middle East--at one point compared the Libyan rebels' military efforts against the far better-equipped forces of Muammar Gadhafi to "a pick-up game" that lacked coordination and strategy.
But Gates and Mullen also made clear that they did not think the United States should get involved with arming the rebels, either overtly or--as many suspect would be the case for such an action--covertly.
"We haven't really addressed this issue, quite frankly," Gates responded Thursday, when asked by a lawmaker if there had been any decision yet to arm the rebels. "My view is, this is something that a lot of other countries can do. One thing that makes Libya different in terms of what is going on is that the United States is in support of others [in the international military coalition]. And others have been taking a much more aggressive stance," he said, apparently referring to France. "If there's going to be that kind of assistance, there are plenty of sources for it other than the United States."
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services panel, railed against the U.S. pulling back its military role in the Libya mission. "This would be a profound mistake with potentially disastrous consequences," he said. "Hope is not a strategy, and it certainly does not degrade armored units."
McCain later sparred with Gates over the U.S. decision to withdraw over the next few days two specialized military gunships, the A-10 and AC-130, from use by the coalition. Gates pushed back. Everyone in NATO, he said, "understood the United States would come in heavy and hard in the beginning," and then move into a support role.
NATO, which officially took command of the Libya military mission on Thursday, has the equivalent of the F-15 and F-16 U.S. fighter jets, Defense officials said, which have been used effectively to take out Gadhafi's air defenses and degrade his command and military assets. These aircraft have been in more frequent use in the initial phase of Operation Odyssey Dawn.
But some analysts worry about an emerging military stalemate in Libya. And some advocate helping the rebels defeat Gadhafi including by the international coalition serving more as an air force for the Libyan rebel ground forces. U.S. military and NATO commanders have repeatedly said they interpret their mission far more narrowly, to protect Libyan civilians from attacks by Gadhafi forces.
Defense officials said bad weather had been hampering air strikes the past three days, not any policy decision to pull back from enforcement of the no-fly zone.
Pentagon officials also said the United States would still be providing crucial and unique U.S. military capabilities to the NATO operation in Libya that the alliance otherwise would not have, including communications, surveillance functions and technology to electronically jam Libyan radars.
Even amid the military stalemate, Tripoli was reported to be shaken by the news Wednesday that Libya's foreign minister and former intelligence chief Moussa Kusa had defected to the United Kingdom. Several other Gadhafi regime associates were also reported to be considering defecting. However, at least one other former senior intelligence official rumored to have fled the country appeared on Libyan State television Friday to say he had not.
Calling Kusa's defection a "significant blow to the Gadhafi regime," National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor said members of Gadhafi's inner circle "have to choose whether to place their bet on a regime that has lost all legitimacy and face grave consequences, or get on the right side of history."
(Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Michael Mullen testify on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, March 31, 2011.: Carolyn Kaster/AP)