The domestic political stakes of America's military intervention in Libya were raised Friday as the Obama administration worked to balance promises of a rapid U.S. transition to a supporting role with an apparent unwillingness among coalition partners to have NATO assume full control of the mission.
White House Press Secretary Jay Carney promised Thursday afternoon that U.S. military forces will be shifting to a "support and assist" role in the international coalition within a matter of days.
The United States is engaged in a "time-limited, scope-limited" action, Carney said.
Hours later, NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen announced that NATO members will take over enforcement of the no-fly zone as early as Sunday. Rasmussen did not say, however, that NATO would assume the lead role in protecting civilians on the ground -- a role which has been mandated by the U.N. Security Council.
Rasmussen also did not say NATO would push to bring about regime change -- a goal beyond the scope of the U.N. mandate. U.S. officials have made clear that they want to see strongman Moammar Gadhafi removed from power.
The announcement raised questions about the prospect of a rapid, seamless transition from an American to a NATO-led operation.
So far, U.S. forces have taken on the bulk of the Libyan mission, according to figures provided by the Pentagon. Of a total of 175 Tomahawk missiles fired, 168 were from the United States and seven from Great Britain, the only two countries to possess them, while U.S. planes have flown almost two-thirds of the sorties and U.S. ships comprise more than two-thirds of the total involved.
A senior administration official asserted Thursday that details on the extent of NATO's mission were still being worked out.
The official, who spoke to reporters on condition of not being identified by name, said NATO ambassadors actually made two decisions Thursday. One was to take over command of the no-fly zone, and the other was a political decision to take responsibility for enforcing the full U.N. Security Council resolution authorizing the military mission.
"That latter part, we are still completing the operational planning and expect to be completed by this weekend," the official said.
The U.N. resolution authorizes a no-fly zone, enforcement of an arms ban, and other steps as necessary to protect Libyan civilians. So far, the U.S.-led coalition has interpreted that to include airstrikes on Libyan ground forces threatening the rebel stronghold of Benghazi and in other areas.
Thursday's agreement was reached in a conference call between U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and her counterparts from Britain, France and Turkey, according to the senior administration official and diplomatic officials who spoke on condition of not being identified by name.
At NATO headquarters later, the meeting of ambassadors extended long past its expected conclusion. NATO sources said a major sticking point involved the rules of engagement for coalition forces enforcing the U.N. resolution, with Turkey raising concerns over details.
When Rasmussen finally emerged to announce an agreement, it was clear that questions over the rules of engagement remained unresolved.
Asked if the announcement revealed a split in NATO over the mission, Rasmussen said no. However, he also acknowledged that if unaltered, the agreement would mean the overall Libyan mission would have two parts, with NATO enforcing the no-fly zone and arms blockade, and the U.S.-led coalition that launched the mission handling other necessary civilian protection.
Rasmussen said NATO would use the mission's already established chain of command for enforcing the no-fly zone. The NATO supreme commander, an American, would be in charge, but the mission would be under NATO control, Rasmussen noted.
In addition, non-NATO partners including Arab countries would participate, Rasmussen said.
After Rasmussen's announcement, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told reporters that all 28 NATO allies authorized military authorities to develop a plan for NATO to take on the broader mission of civilian protection under U.N. Security Council Resolution 1973.
"NATO is well-suited to coordinating this international effort and ensuring that all participating nations are working effectively together toward our shared goals," said Clinton, who took no questions. "This coalition includes countries beyond NATO, including Arab partners, and we expect all of them to be providing important political guidance going forward. We have always said that Arab leadership and participation is crucial."
Clinton also said she will travel to London on Tuesday to attend an international meeting on Libya that will include NATO allies and Arab partners in the Libya mission.