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Obama and Libya: When push comes to shove

Libyan rebel fighters run for cover as an air force jet drops a bomb on the outskirts of Ras Lanuf, March 8, 2011. Marco Longari/AFP/Getty Images

The options for diplomatic and/or military intervention in Libya are growing more complicated as the fighting there continues into a third week, with President Obama, the United Nations and NATO allies debating strategies to end the violence and move Col. Muammar Qaddafi from power.

NATO has begun all-day surveillance flights over Libya with AWACS reconnaissance aircraft, as Qaddafi continues using air power to counterattack rebels outside Tripoli and in the opposition-controlled east. Britain and France want to impose a no-fly zone, and are drafting a resolution for the U.N. Security Council. But President Obama has not yet signed on.

CBS News National Security Consultant and retired Army Colonel Jeff McCausland said the NATO surveillance could be a precursor to a no-fly zone. "It certainly seems to be where things are now moving," McCausland said, "or at least consideration is being given into putting in a no-fly zone."

In "company town" of Tripoli, loyalty to Qaddafi

Part of the reasoning for the surveillance is to get a better sense of what air power Libyan is deploying, and which air bases it is using to conduct attacks.

CBS News national security correspondent David Martin reports that NATO Defense Ministers are expected to take up the matter on Thursday. But he says that even if NATO were to approve a no-fly zone, it would still require a U.N. resolution - and that Russia and China are still roadblocks to approval.

Martin said a no-fly zone is not the only military option, but it seems to be the only one with international traction. A no-fly zone would also inhibit Qaddafi's ability to move or supply his forces.

Libya continues bombarding rebel positions

Tactically, a no-fly zone might be more difficult to enforce, said the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London. In a report issued Tuesday, the military experts said Qaddafi's jets pose less of a threat to rebels than do attack helicopters, which are harder to detect by radar surveillance of Libyan skies.

A no-fly zone over Libya would therefore likely have little impact on Qaddafi's counter-offensives, said the group.

The institute estimates that as of November 2010, Libya had 76,000 active troops and 40,000 militia fighters in reserve, and around 300 combat aircraft.

Libya's ragtag revolutionary army

The IISS also suggests that the rebels' combat capabilities would increase the longer the conflict continues, and as sanctions have a dampening effect on the government's capabilities and troop morale.

But while the fighting in Libya continues, any message to be conveyed through actions taken by the United States, NATO or the U.N. is complicated by a host of factors.

In today's New York Times, David Sanger and Thom Shanker write that Obama administration officials face a number of risks by intervening in the Libyan revolt - including the perception that the U.S. is once again meddling in Middle Eastern affairs.

Libyan rebels have asked the West to impose a no-fly zone over their country in order to quell airstrikes, but have pointedly asked foreign countries not to bring in ground troops. Yet Defense Secretary Robert Gates said last week a no-fly zone would require prior military intervention, including attacks on Libyan air defenses, to make it effective. And a humanitarian effort to bring aid to refugees or those affected by the conflict (including thousands living in tent camps along the Libya-Tunisia border) would likely require manpower from a stretched military.

Squeamishness about the U.S. stepping onto a new battlefield while still extricating itself from Iraq and, on a longer-term scenario, Afghanistan, is also at play.

Smith: Qaddafi may be crazy, but he isn't stupid

On Monday while hosting Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard at the White House, Mr. Obama said that "the violence that's been taking place and perpetrated by the government in Libya is unacceptable." He noted Australia's support of sanctions against Libya, and warned that the Qaddafi regime "will be held accountable" for continued violence.

But, the Times notes, Mr. Obama's unwillingness to give ownership of the rebellion to the United States is being countered by voices in both the Republican and Democratic Parties to move more quickly.

On CBS' "The Early Show" this morning, Sen. John McCain renewed his call for a no-fly zone, in order to prevent Qaddafi from "massacring" his own people.

"He is committing war crimes. He is doing things which are in violation of every standard of international behavior," McCain said. "A no-fly zone would not only stop the air attacks but it would also send a message to the anti-Qaddafi forces that we're assisting them."

McCain, who lost the 2008 presidential race to Mr. Obama, is joined by Sen. Joseph Lieberman, I-Conn., in calling for a no-fly zone. Lieberman told the Times that sitting by as Qaddafi launches a counter-offensive may be riskier than intervening militarily, by opening the doors to tribalism similar to what occurred in Iraq following the fall of Saddam Hussein. Yet, Lieberman told the Times, "It's hard to imagine any new government growing out of this opposition that is worse than Qaddafi."

Simon Tisdall of the Guardian writes that President Obama is being driven into a military intervention by such critics as McCain and Lieberman, and events may still tip his hand: "If regime forces continue to regain lost territory, if casualties and evidence of mass killings of civilians mount, if the humanitarian crisis deepens, and if political pressure intensifies in Washington, Obama may feel obliged to act."

Other Republican critics of Mr. Obama (including potential candidates for the White House) have taken the president to task for not taking action or speaking out more forcefully against Qaddafi.

Describing the Obama administration's foreign policy as "very, very dangerous," Newt Gingrich said the White House attitude toward Qaddafi was "confused," and that it cannot differentiate between "Israelis building apartments with Iranians building nuclear weapons."

Mitt Romney said President Obama and his administration had been caught "off-guard" by the rising turmoil in the Middle East. "The President and his team look like deer in the headlights. Instead of leading the world, the President has been tiptoeing behind the Europeans," Romney said in New Hampshire last Friday.

One thing everyone seems to agree upon: The U.S. must be joined with others - the U.N., NATO, the African Union, or especially the Arab League - in any intervention.

But even in that regard there are dissenters. In a Wall Street Journal op-ed, John Yoo - the Bush administration official who authored a 2003 memo saying the U.S. was not bound by international laws against torture - writes that the U.S. does not need authorization from the United Nations before attacking Libya.

"It should come as no surprise that an administration dominated by academic thinking on Iraq is making a fetish of international law in Libya," Yoo writes in proposing the U.S. intervene without waiting for the United Nations' approval. " By putting aside the U.N.'s antiquated rules, the United States can save lives, improve global welfare, and serve its own national interests at the same time."

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