WASHINGTON — The White House announced a five-point program on Thursday of steps to isolate Moammar Gadhafi and ultimately drive him from power, all stopping short of military action, but distanced itself from the assessment of the nation's top intelligence chief, who said on Thursday that "over the longer term" Gadhafi's superior firepower "will prevail" over the opposition.
The steps that the White House announced include a partial embrace of the opposition movement as well as threats to track and prosecute, in international courts, loyalists to Gadhafi who commit atrocities. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said she would meet with Libyan opposition leaders next week, and President Barack Obama's national security adviser made it clear that Washington was looking for ways to aid the Libyan leader's opponents.
"We're coordinating directly with them to provide assistance," national security adviser Thomas E. Donilon said, though the United States has stopped short of recognizing them as the legitimate government of Libya. All of that assistance, he quickly added, was humanitarian in nature, or involved discussions about how to organize an opposition government.
But on a day that military momentum moved back toward Gadhafi's forces, it was not evident that the efforts the White House announced would be sufficient to ensure an end to Gadhafi's 41-year rule, or even slow the pace of his attacks.
Forces loyal to Gadhafi sent opposition fighters fleeing Thursday from a strategic oil port in eastern Libya that rebels had held for a week, appearing to reverse the rebels' advances toward Tripoli.
Rockets and shells pounded Ras Lanuf by air, land and sea, driving rebels and other residents farther east along the Mediterranean coast. Libyan officials were triumphant, asserting that the Libyan army had retaken the port and would press ahead.
"Hear it now, I have only two words for our brothers and sisters in the east: We're coming," Gadhafi's son, Seif al-Islam, vowed before a crowd of about 2,000 frenzied supporters gathered in a hall in Tripoli.
In Brussels, NATO deferred until at least next week any decision about establishing a no-flight zone over Libya, amid hesitation in Washington and in several European capitals over being drawn into a civil war in a country that the West does not consider critical to its security. Both Clinton, speaking in Washington, and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, in Brussels, warned about the potential dangers of American military involvement, unless it was authorized by the United Nations and unless neighboring countries, including those in Africa, joined in the effort.
The White House, campaigning to convince both Gadhafi's loyalists and NATO allies that the Libyan dictator's days are numbered, was undercut by a military assessment given earlier in the day the director of national intelligence, James Clapper. Responding to questions, Clapper told members of the Senate Armed Services Committee that Gadhafi has a potentially decisive advantage in arms and equipment that would make itself felt as the conflict wore on.
"This is kind of a stalemate back and forth," he said, "but I think over the longer term that the regime will prevail."
Clapper also offered up another scenario, one in which the country is split in two or three "mini-states," reverting back to the way it was before Gadhafi's rule. "You could end up with a situation where Gadhafi would have Tripoli and its environs, and then Benghazi and its environs could be under another mini-state," he said.
The White House was clearly taken aback by the assessment that Gadhafi could prevail, and Donilon, talking to reporters a few hours later, suggested that Clapper was addressing the question too narrowly.
"The lost legitimacy matters," he argued. "Motivation matters. Incentives matter."
One prominent Republican senator, however, said the intelligence director should lose his job for the comments he made. Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, a member of the Armed Services Committee, said Clapper's assessment "will make the situation more difficult for those opposing Gadhafi," adding, "It also undercuts our national efforts to bring about the desired result of Libya moving from dictator to democracy."
In Brussels, meanwhile, NATO all but rejected a no-fly zone over Libya and agreed only to reposition warships in the region and plan for humanitarian aid.
Clinton said Thursday that she would meet with Libyan rebel leaders during her travels next week, when she visits the Middle East for the first time since popular uprisings swept the Arab world. She did not identify the leaders she intended to meet. It appeared likely she would meet with them in Paris, where President Nicholas Sarkozy of France on Thursday met with two representatives of the newly created Libyan National Council, Mahmoud Jibril and Ali al-Esawi.
Information from the New York Times and Associated Press was used in this report.