WASHINGTON — While it's clearly reluctant to become militarily involved in Libya's burgeoning civil war, the Obama administration is coming under pressure to do just that.
World oil prices are soaring, posing a threat to the U.S. economic recovery, and food and medicine shortages are looming in rebellious cities cordoned off by Moammar Gadhafi's forces. Top U.S. lawmakers, meanwhile, are calling for the imposition of a no-fly zone and even sending arms to the Libyan dictator's ragtag foes.
"We have joined with allies in making clear that Colonel Gadhafi must go. He has lost all legitimacy. We cannot be halfway about that goal," Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry, D-Mass., said Wednesday, urging the administration to be ready to enforce a no-fly zone over the North African nation "as necessary."
The turmoil in Libya poses a growing dilemma for President Obama as he grapples with the most serious foreign crisis to erupt on his watch. He finds himself caught between a desire to avoid U.S. meddling in what have been indigenous Arab uprisings over poverty, joblessness and the denial of basic rights and sitting by as Gadhafi looses fresh onslaughts against population centers lost to the rebels.
"I think the United States has a unique problem in the world. It can't do too little, but it can't do too much," said Steve Clemons of the New America Foundation, one of a number of outside experts who's been consulted by the White House on the uprisings sweeping the Middle East.
The administration is also deeply concerned that the longer the upheaval persists, the greater the danger that al-Qaida or other extremists could find a new safe haven in Libya from which to plot attacks on U.S. and allied targets.
"One of our biggest concerns is Libya descending into chaos and becoming a giant Somalia," Secretary of State Hillary Clinton testified Wednesday before Kerry's panel. "It's right now not something that we see in the offing but many of the al-Qaida activists in Afghanistan and later in Iraq came from Libya."
The pressure on Obama to intervene is coming at home and abroad.
Noting that Libyan rebel leaders aren't asking for foreign troops, Kerry warned that the international community "cannot sit on the sidelines while (Gadhafi's) airplanes are allowed to bomb and strafe."
Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Joseph Lieberman, a Connecticut independent who caucuses with majority Senate Democrats, also have endorsed a no-fly zone, and called for arming the rebels who control Libya's eastern wing and several western cities.
Fighting in Libya
In Libya, meanwhile, the alliance of poorly armed civilians and military defectors fighting to end Gadhafi's 42-year rule faced new attacks, driving off an assault on the eastern town of Brega, an oil terminal. The western city of Zawiya remained under a blockade that's choked off food and medical supplies for its estimated 100,000 residents.
The fighting in Brega, coupled with rising U.S. demand, drove oil prices to settle above $100.
The price run-up is being felt at the pumps — a potential brake on the fragile U.S. economic recovery that could hurt Obama politically.
"Here's the downside. Americans are spending 10 percent of disposable income (on gasoline) at $87 a barrel.... What this does is create an economic problem and a political problem," said Kevin Book, managing director of the research firm ClearView Energy Partners in Washington.
International aid organizations, meanwhile, expressed deep concerns over conditions inside Libya, where hospitals are struggling with casualties and food supplies are dwindling.
A no-fly zone is among the military options that the Pentagon is preparing for Obama, U.S. officials said. Not only would it ground Gadhafi's air force, but it could prevent him from flying more African mercenaries in to support his forces.
For now, however, the administration isn't going beyond saying that two amphibious assault ships, the USS Kearsarge and the USS Ponce, that entered the Mediterranean Sea on Wednesday, could be used for humanitarian operations and emergency evacuations of foreigners.
The Pentagon appears especially reluctant to take on a third conflict in the Muslim world as it strives to bring its budget under control and avoid further stressing U.S. forces badly strained by the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Testifying on Wednesday before the House Armed Services Committee, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates called for an end to the "loose talk" about U.S. military options in Libya and warned anew that enforcing a no-fly zone would involving destroying Gadhafi's air defenses.
"Let's just call a spade a spade. A no-fly zone begins with an attack on Libya to destroy air defenses. Then you can fly planes around the country and not worry about our guys being shot down," he said.
U.S. military intervention carries other serious consequences. They include major setbacks to Obama's efforts to repair the damage to relations with Russia, China and the Arab world dealt by the Iraq war and other policies.