WASHINGTON — In a sharp break from his predecessor's approach, President Barack Obama has decided to wait for European and Arab support before intervening in Libya, a stance that critics say will give dictator Moammar Gadhafi more time to launch brutal assaults on his opponents.
With Gadhafi's forces now in control of most of the rebellious city of Zawiya in west Libya and stepping up strikes on opposition-held eastern Libya, the White House is under growing pressure to make good on its call for Gadhafi to leave power after 42 years.
The administration insists that it has moved with unprecedented speed since the crisis erupted in mid-February. It has backed United Nations sanctions, frozen $30 billion in Gadhafi family assets, launched humanitarian operations and round-the-clock surveillance flights and held tentative talks with rebel leaders.
"It is very important for people to understand the kind of dramatic action that has been taken with the leadership of this president and will continue to be taken," White House spokesman Jay Carney said Wednesday. "There has never been a situation where the international community, with leadership by the United States, has acted as quickly as it has."
The administration says that without international support, more aggressive steps, such as imposing the no-fly zone demanded by some senior U.S. lawmakers, risks being condemned as unilateral U.S. intervention, adding to anti-U.S. anger in a part of the world already brimming with it.
"It's important for us to get the region to be as supportive as possible," said a senior U.S. official, who requested anonymity to discuss the issue candidly. "There is clearly a potential cost if we are asked to intervene in another Arab country. So that's why it's important for others to be in the lead. The region does remember Iraq."
Moreover, he said, U.S. officials are still assessing where the National Transitional Council, the 30-member rebel leadership based in the eastern city of Benghazi, stands on a no-fly zone and other actions the U.S. could take.
There are other reasons for the administration's approach.
President Barack Obama sees the Libyan rebellion and the largely peaceful uprisings in Egypt, Tunisia and elsewhere as indigenous movements that he doesn't want to taint with a U.S. hand.
Moreover, with the U.S. facing trillion-dollar deficits and Republicans casting him as a big government spender as he prepares to run for re-election, Obama has little political room to take on a new foreign military commitment of unknown duration and cost in a country where no major U.S. interests are at stake.
Obama's top national security aides Wednesday reviewed the options for intervention that the U.S. military and its NATO counterparts are considering, but didn't issue a statement.
"We are not at a decision point," Carney said.
Instead, the administration is waiting to see if NATO can reach a consensus on the next steps when defense ministers meet Thursday in Brussels.
The 22-member Arab League meets Saturday to consider endorsing a no-fly zone, a move backed Monday by the Gulf Cooperation Council, a regional body comprising Saudi Arabia and the Arab oil sheikdoms.
If those organizations approve intervention, Britain and France — backed by the U.S. — must then persuade Russia and China not to use their vetoes to block the U.N. resolution on a no-fly zone.
Even with Russian and Chinese opposition, enough countries may move forward with a no-fly zone as members of "a coalition of the willing," a precedent set when NATO launched airstrikes without a U.N. resolution to halt Serbia's onslaught in Kosovo in 1999, experts said.
"If you want to see Gadhafi gone at the end of the day, if that's the goal, then I think you have to push the envelope," said Robert Hunter, a former U.S. ambassador to NATO. "But you have to push it. There has been too much dithering on this thing."
Obama's policy contrasts sharply with that of the former Bush administration, which resisted multilateral approaches to foreign policy and invaded Iraq without an explicit U.N. resolution.
"We've all seen, in the past decade and a half, the difference between action that's taken in conjunction with the international community, and action that's not," said a congressional aide, referring to the Iraq war. "Their reticence is most definitely caused by our most recent history." The aide wasn't authorized to speak for the record.
Yet Obama's approach carries risks.
"The longer it takes, the harder it is to deter Gadhafi's aggression. By working the diplomacy behind the scenes, the U.S. is letting NATO countries and Gulf states set the timetable and the agenda," said David Phillips, a former State Department senior adviser who directs the peace-building and rights program at Columbia University.
Arab diplomats say the administration's intentions are hard to read.
"It's utterly bewildering," said an Arab diplomat, who requested anonymity because he wasn't authorized to discuss the issue publicly. "You have to want to lead, and if he (Obama) is looking at whether the market can take another intervention and (at) his re-election, then nothing is going to happen."
Carney has repeatedly said that a no-fly zone is an option, while Defense Secretary Robert Gates and the U.S. ambassador to NATO have questioned its utility and pointed out the difficulties in mounting such an operation.
Said one diplomat from a friendly European country: "It's difficult to interpret the signals that come from Washington on that specific issue." The diplomat requested anonymity to speak more frankly.
State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said the U.S. couldn't provide weapons to the Libyan opposition, because of a U.N. arms embargo against Libya passed last month. He later acknowledged the ban could be modified to exclude the rebels.
On Wednesday, Carney said no modification was needed. "We believe that the arms embargo contains within it the flexibility to allow for a decision to arm the opposition, if that decision were made," he said.
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY