US resists pressure from Europe's hawks to boost role in Libya fight

France and Britain, displeased with pace of operations to check Qaddafi in Libya, want the US and other NATO members to step up their roles. NATO foreign ministers meet Thursday in Berlin to assess the mission.

Amr Abdallah Dalsh/Reuters
Women shout slogans against Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi during a demonstration in Benghazi, Libya, on April 13. A group of Western powers and Middle Eastern states called for the first time on Wednesday for Qaddafi to step aside, but NATO countries squabbled publicly over stepping up air strikes to help topple him.

Call them the Euro-hawks – the European military powers pressuring the United States and other NATO members to play a more aggressive role in the Libya fight.

As NATO foreign ministers including Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton prepare to meet in Berlin Thursday, France and Britain are expressing displeasure at the pace and intensity of NATO-led operations in Libya.

Paris and London are criticizing the Alliance for not doing enough to stop attacks on civilians by forces loyal to Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi. They are including Washington in their criticism, suggesting that the US should consider returning its air power to help enforce the no-fly zone over Libya, a United Nations-sanctioned action.

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The Obama administration’s response, coming through the Pentagon and State Department, is to express overall satisfaction with NATO’s Libya performance and to play down the need for additional air forces – specifically American forces – to reinforce the mission.

But with reports flowing out of Libya of mounting hardships for civilians, and with a military stalemate appearing to settle in, the rift in NATO over how far to take a murky mandate is likely to dominate the ministers’ Berlin meeting.

The perception of dire straits for Libya’s civilians was reinforced Wednesday when UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, addressing an international meeting on Libya in Doha, Qatar, said conditions in Libya are worsening and international aid is falling short. The Doha meeting is meant to find ways of bolstering the Libyan rebels while also fostering a political solution to the conflict.

On Tuesday Britain’s foreign secretary, William Hague, pointedly called on “other countries” within NATO to step up and provide more air power for the campaign, as Britain has done. That plea reflects the conclusion of some military analysts who say the NATO effort is lacking both in the number and types of aircraft it has deployed.

A coalition of 17 countries is participating in the campaign, but most of them – including the US – are restricting their aircraft to reconnaissance and other nonstrike missions. Only four countries – France, Britain, Norway, and Denmark – are carrying out the bombing missions against Colonel Qaddafi’s forces.

Some of the planes the US pulled out of the campaign after the initial week of bombing are the kind of low-flying, precision fighters the NATO mission needs as Qaddafi shifts to fighting with tanks and artillery, say some military analysts.

But the US is showing no signs of yielding to pressure to return to a front-row role in Libya.

At the Pentagon on Tuesday, spokesman Col. David Lapan said the 28-member NATO alliance had not made any request to the US to resume its participation in the bombing mission in Libya. At the State Department, spokesman Mark Toner said the US would “help out if requested in other capacities” but added that the US role “has receded.”

The White House is keen on sticking to the subordinate role for several reasons, analysts say. President Obama wants to avoid the image of an America leading a third war in a Muslim country, for one thing. He also sees Libya as more of an European interest, given its proximity and economic ties to Europe. With the US role in Libya already having cost more than $600 million, according to the Pentagon, Mr. Obama sees a budgetary reason to limit it, analysts say.

The State Department’s Mr. Toner insisted the US has “every confidence” in NATO’s ability to carry out its three core tasks in Libya: enforcing the no-fly zone, enforcing a UN-mandated arms embargo, and protecting Libya’s civilian population from pro-Qaddafi forces.

It’s the latter task – and the disagreements within the coalition over how much international forces should do to that end – that is likely to set off fireworks at NATO’s Berlin meeting and beyond.

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