Washington - President Obama’s top two national security officials signaled on Thursday that the United States was unlikely to arm the Libyan rebels, raising the possibility that the French alone among the Western allies would provide weapons and training for the poorly organized forces fighting Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi’s regime.
Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates made his views known for the first time on Thursday in a marathon day of testimony to members of Congress. He said the United States should stick to offering training, communications and other support, but suggested that the administration had no problem with other countries sending weapons to help the rebels, who in recent days have been retreating under attack from pro-Qaddafi forces.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who pushed the president to intervene in Libya, was described by an administration official on Thursday as supremely cautious about arming the rebels “because of the unknowns” about who they were and whether they might have links to Al Qaeda.
Earlier Thursday, the secretary general of NATO, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, told reporters in Stockholm that he believed that the United Nations Security Council resolution authorizing the air campaign in Libya did not even permit individual countries to arm the rebels. But there was considerable disagreement within the military alliance, including from the United States, which has taken the position that the resolution does in fact allow arming them.
In Libya, as the opposition forces began a cautious regrouping after a panicked retreat on Wednesday, an atmosphere of paranoia descended on the capital, Tripoli, after the defection of the foreign minister, Moussa Koussa. Fears that the government could be cracking were deepened further when a second top Libyan official, Ali Abdussalam el-Treki, defected Thursday to Egypt.
In Washington, the unified position of Mr. Gates and Mrs. Clinton appeared to dull a debate within the administration about the merits of the United States’ supplying weapons to the rebels, a disparate, little-known group. Publicly, Mr. Obama has said only that he is still weighing what to do. France is the only nation that has said it intends to supply arms to the anti-Qaddafi forces.
“What the opposition needs as much as anything right now is some training, some command and control, and some organization,” Mr. Gates told members of the House Armed Services Committee in a morning session. “It’s pretty much a pickup ballgame at this point.”
But, he said, providing training and weapons is “not a unique capability for the United States, and as far as I’m concerned, somebody else can do that.”
Mr. Gates told Congress that he strongly opposed putting any United States forces in Libya. Asked if there would be American “boots on the ground” — uniformed members of the military — Mr. Gates swiftly replied, “Not as long as I’m in this job.” He refused to address reports that theCentral Intelligence Agency had sent clandestine operatives to Libya to gather intelligence for military airstrikes and to contact and vet the rebels.
Mr. Gates and Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, were summoned to testify in a highly politicized atmosphere on Capitol Hill, where members of both parties charged them with either “mission creep” in Libya or with not doing enough. Many demanded to know how the conflict would end, and others admonished the administration, saying it had gone to war without seeking Congressional authorization.
Still others said the president had not told the public the truth about the operation. The White House describes it as a humanitarian mission to protect Libyan civilians, but it has involved more than 200 Tomahawk cruise missiles fired at Libya and the bombing and strafing by American and allied planes of Colonel Qaddafi’s ground forces.
“These are combat operations,” said Representative Mike Coffman, Republican of Colorado, during the morning session. “I don’t know why this administration has not been honest with the American people that this is about regime change.”
He concluded, “This is just the most muddled definition of an operation probably in U.S. military history.”
Senator John McCain, the Arizona Republican who ran against Mr. Obama for the White House in 2008, was first on the offensive in the afternoon, charging the administration with walking away from the conflict now that the United States has said it will be in a military support role behind NATO.
What that means, Admiral Mullen told Mr. McCain and the rest of the Senate Armed Services Committee, is that the United States will no longer conduct airstrikes in Libya unless requested by NATO.
“This would be a profound mistake with potentially disastrous consequences,” Mr. McCain said. He said that withdrawing the muscle of the American military is out of alignment with Mr. Obama’s policy goal of ousting Mr. Qaddafi.
“Hope is not a strategy,” Mr. McCain said, “and it certainly does not degrade armored units.”
Mr. Gates, stony faced throughout the day, found himself in the awkward position of having to defend a military action that he had been reluctant to get into in the first place. The defense secretary had been the most skeptical of the president’s top advisers about imposing a no-fly zone over Libya, and said repeatedly that it would require the kind of missile and air strikes that began raining down on Libya on the night of March 12.
Members of Congress repeatedly asked how the president would avoid a stalemate, particularly as the rebels have back-tracked in the last 48 hours.
Admiral Mullen placed some blame for the retreat on heavy clouds and blowing sand and dirt over the last two days that prompted allied pilots to hold fire — making it apparent that Qaddafi forces had taken advantage of the lull in air strikes to push the rebels into retreat. Military officials later said that while American and allied aircraft can fight in all weather and at night, pilots were using extra caution before deciding to fire at targets on the ground, for fear of inflicting civilian casualties when fighters from both sides mingle with the population.
“As I know you know, we’ve been very badly impeded in the last few days by weather,” Admiral Mullen told Mr. McCain.
Democrats told Mr. Gates and Adm. Mullen that they had been left in the dark by the White House, even though they acknowledged that Mr. Obama had made his decision on military action less than 48 hours before the attack began.
“Even before the White House knows exactly what it’s going to do, there is some benefit to bringing leadership in Congress into the discussion in terms of building support here,” said Representative Adam Smith of Washington, the top Democrat on the House panel.
At the same time, Representative Howard P. McKeon, Republican of California and the chairman of the House committee, said that history had shown that the Libyan regime could be resilient in the face of allied air power. “If Qaddafi does not face an imminent military defeat or refuses to abdicate,” Mr. McKeon said, “it seems that NATO could be expected to support decade-long no-fly zone enforcement like the one over Iraq in the 1990s.”
Mr. Gates said he expected American involvement to be limited and that the conflict would probably end with Colonel Qaddafi’s removal from power, either by economic and political pressures or by his own people.
But under questioning from Mr. McKeon, Mr. Gates said he did not have a time frame for Colonel Qaddafi’s ouster. “The bottom line is, no one can predict for you how long it will take for that to happen,” he said.
In the same hearing, Senator Carl Levin, the Michigan Democrat who is the Armed Services chairman, pressed Mr. Gates to weigh the pros and cons of arming the rebels.
Mr. Gates expressed caution, saying that the United States knows very little about the rebel leaders, whom he described as “disparate, disaggregated,” nor how they would act if they toppled the Qaddafi government and came to power.
“I think that one of the concerns that we have to have is that we don’t know very much about the opposition,” Mr. Gates said.
He noted that a substantial supply of small arms already was available to the opposition, and that to become a more effective force the rebels required training. “I believe that requires advisers on the ground, as would more sophisticated weapons,” he said.