WASHINGTON — The international coalition confronting Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi agreed Thursday to put NATO in charge of enforcing a no-fly zone but was still working on a deal to relieve U.S. forces of command of all military operations in the country.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton had reached preliminary agreement on a broader accord in a phone call earlier Thursday with her counterparts from Turkey, France and Britain, the Washington Post reported. But Turkey raised last-minute objections Thursday evening, the Post said, citing an unnamed diplomat.
The Obama administration is eager to transfer military command to NATO to portray the six-day-old operation as an international humanitarian mission, rather than a U.S.-led offensive in another Muslim country.
Obama is also facing mounting pressure from Congress about the operation's goals and the extent of U.S. involvement. The president has promised to turn over control of the mission within "days, not weeks," with the United States assuming a supporting role.
Whatever happens in NATO, the coalition may continue to have a U.S. face. NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said Thursday that leadership of the operations in Libya would be determined by the alliance's normal command structure, which would mean an American officer would be in charge. The Post reported, however, that a senior U.S. official said Thursday night that the task force overseeing the Libya operation would be led by a Canadian, Lt. Gen. Charles Bouchard.
Rasmussen said NATO had agreed only to assume responsibility for enforcing a no-fly zone and an arms embargo against Libya. Alliance members were debating whether NATO would take on the more controversial role of protecting civilians by striking Libyan tanks and troops, not just its planes, he said.
"We have not decided yet whether we will take on the broader responsibility," Rasmussen said in an interview with CNN's The Situation Room. He played down the possibility of a split, saying that "there is unity within NATO."
The Post, citing unnamed American diplomats, reported that the coalition had agreed in principle to set up a structure in which NATO's military command would oversee offensive operations while its political body, the North Atlantic Council, would provide overall guidance. Non-NATO countries would participate in the structures, much as they do as part of the coalition fighting in Afghanistan, the report said.
"Our demands have been met on Libya, the operation will be handed over to NATO," said Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, speaking on Turkish state television.
Turkey is the only Muslim-majority member of NATO, which requires that all members approve any military action.
The Post reported that American diplomats said NATO members had agreed in principle on a broader agreement to include the entire civilian protection mission. Clinton said Thursday evening that the 28 NATO countries had authorized military authorities to develop a plan for that operation.
A senior administration official said in a conference call with reporters that the military operations plan would be finished over the weekend, according to the Post report. The newspaper's report went on to say, however, that one Western diplomat said the Turks had balked on reaching a final agreement because of their uneasiness with the coalition's ground attacks, which have raised concerns in the Arab world over possible civilian deaths.
The questions swirling around the operation's command mirrored the larger strategic divisions over how exactly the coalition will bring it to an end — or even what the end might look like, and whether it might even conceivably include a Libya with Gadhafi remaining in some capacity. The New York Times reported that while few countries have openly sided with the Libyan leader, officials said Thursday that most of the allies expected that the use of military force would lead to talks between the government and the rebels.
Gadhafi has responded defiantly, making the likelihood of his negotiated departure seem exceedingly remote.
The allied bombardment remains in its early stages. It has already badly eroded Libya's combat power — with scores of missile and airstrikes against Libya's air defenses and armored columns — but not yet drastically reversed the military equation on the ground.
President Barack Obama, having returned from his trip to Latin America on Wednesday, met privately at the White House with his senior national security officials but made no public statements, even as reservations percolated in Congress and elsewhere about the conflict and its end game.
Asked about concerns raised the day before in a letter by House Speaker John Boehner, Obama's spokesman Jay Carney said, "I think the president's been very clear, and he has been asked and answered this question numerous times."
In fact, Obama has not made clear what will happen if the international coalition succeeds in establishing control of the skies over Libya, but Gadhafi's loyalists and rebels continue to attack and counterattack each other in a bloody, protracted stalemate.
"We should never begin an operation without knowing how we stand down," Joseph W. Ralston, a retired general who served as NATO commander and vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the New York Times. "We did a no-fly zone over Iraq for 12 years, and it did nothing to get rid of Saddam (Hussein). So why do we think it will get rid of Gadhafi?"
If NATO does assume full control over the Libyan operations, the United States would still play a prominent role in the mission, providing air refueling tankers and surveillance planes. American aircraft would also continue to fly combat strike missions, said Vice Adm. Bill Gortney, director of the Joint Staff in the Pentagon.
From the start, the administration insisted that it was acting to avert the imminent slaughter of civilians in Benghazi and other rebel-held cities and that the goal of the military operations was clearly spelled out in the U.N. Security Council resolution.
Obama's administration, however, has clearly tried to avoid the debate over a strategy beyond that by shifting the burden of enforcing the Security Council resolution authorizing force on to France, Britain and other allies, including Arab nations like Qatar and the United Arab Emirates.
In other words, the U.S. exit strategy is not necessarily the coalition's exit strategy.