WASHINGTON, D.C. — As the U.S. debates its future participation in the Libyan conflict, defense officials slammed the brakes Thursday on any major American role aiding opposition groups and insisted that the Obama administration should not be the one to arm the rebels.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that if the rebels are to get arms and training, countries other than the U.S. should provide that assistance.
With the U.S. role in Libya at a turning point, the next critical decision is how, if at all, the U.S. chooses to support the opposition forces, particularly in the face of the ongoing budget crisis at home.
“My view would be, if there is going to be that kind of [training] assistance to the opposition, there are plenty of sources for it other than the United States,” Gates told the House Armed Services Committee.
The ongoing scope of U.S. military action drew heated debate among senators unhappy that the Pentagon no longer will be conducting airstrikes in the coming days — leaving that key combat responsibility to allies such as the French, British and Canadians.
Mullen said that after April 2, U.S. aircraft will be available to help with airstrikes if requested by the NATO commander. Senators objected, with some suggesting that the U.S. is abandoning the campaign just as Gadhafi is regrouping and routing the opposition forces.
“For the United States to withdraw our unique offensive capabilities at this time would send the wrong signal,” said Sen. John McCain, top Republican on the Senate Armed Services panel. He said we must not fail in Libya and said he spoke as someone experienced in a lost conflict, a clear reference to his time as a prisoner of war in Vietnam.
The White House, meanwhile, said arming the rebels is still under consideration, but press secretary Jay Carney said he saw “no contradiction” between that and Gates’ remarks. He added, “What the president said is that he has not ruled it in or out.”
As yet, none of Obama’s top advisers has publicly advocated a significant expansion of the U.S. role aiding the opposition.
The vigorous debate, which stretched throughout the day on Capitol Hill, underscores the tensions across the U.S. government over how best to aid Libyan civilians and accomplish the administration’s goal of ousting Gadhafi, without committing America to a costly war the public doesn’t understand and many don’t support.
“I know that I am preoccupied with avoiding mission creep and avoiding having an open-ended, very large-scale American commitment in this,” said Gates. “We are in serious budget trouble.”
He said if the military is going to have to do all things, the Pentagon needs the money to pay for it.
The defense leaders also made it clear to Congress that there will be no U.S. military ground forces in Libya. They would not comment on reports that the CIA has small teams working with the Libyan rebels.
The U.S. turned over control of the military operation to NATO on Thursday, just hours before Gates and Mullen told Congress that future U.S. participation will be far more limited in the coming days.
They were unable, however, to answer key questions from clearly agitated lawmakers about the length of the overall operation and how it will play out if Gadhafi does not relinquish power.
Many lawmakers were angered by what they said was the administration’s lack of candor with Congress ahead of the Libya mission. Several complained that the mission is expensive and ill-defined.
The military leaders told Congress the rebels remain a largely unknown quantity, but Gates defended the U.S. intervention, saying the opposition is a better alternative than Col. Moammar Gadhafi. Gates said Gadhafi has been a persistent and dangerous enemy, but he also acknowledged that efforts to oust the Libyan leader may not work.
“You could have a situation where you achieve the military goal and not achieve the political goal” of regime change, Gates said.
He added that the U.S. had considered the possibility of a prolonged stalemate. And although he said the United States could not accept a reorganized Libyan government with Gadhafi in power, he steered around the question of what the U.S. could do to prevent that.
The defense leaders struggled to avoid being dragged into the increasingly bitter conflict between Congress and the White House over authorization for the military operation.
In fact, Obama gathered congressional leaders at the White House and by telephone the day before the mission began to inform them of his decision. The Senate also unanimously approved a resolution March 1 backing the no-fly zone.
Responding to the complaints, Deputy Secretary of State Jim Steinberg told a separate House panel on Thursday that “stopping a potential humanitarian disaster of massive proportions became a question of hours, not days. And so we acted decisively to prevent a potential massacre.”
Gates downplayed the threat of a terrorism upsurge flowing from the wave of Mideast unrest.
In the long run, he said, al-Qaida “is a loser in this revolution that is taking place.”
Gates and Mullen said Gadhafi’s military has been degraded by as much as 25 percent, but Mullen noted that Gadhafi’s forces still outnumber the rebels by about 10-to-1. Just about 1,000 of the rebels, they said, have military training.
Gates said that he believes political and economic pressures eventually will drive Gadhafi from power, but the military operation will help force him to make those choices by degrading his defense capabilities.
Separately, the State Department said the U.S. was not involved in the defection of Gadhafi’s top diplomat, Moussa Koussa, although a U.S. diplomat had talked with Koussa.
“He’s obviously been a part of the Gadhafi regime for many, many years,” State Department Mark Toner said. “I obviously don’t want to talk about what conversations we may be having with him and what kind of intelligence we may be able to gather from him, but he certainly has a wealth of information to share, should he decide to.”
Associated Press writers Adam Goldman and Robert Burns contributed to this report.