The Obama administration cut ties Thursday with Libya's embassy in the United States and announced high-level meetings with opposition leaders, as France became the first nation to recognize the governing council fighting against Moammar Gadhafi's regime.
As Western powers examined their military options, the U.S. warned that a go-it-alone approach in Libya could have unforeseeable and devastating consequences.
"We're looking to see whether there is any willingness in the international community to provide any authorization for further steps," she said. "Absent international authorization, the United States acting alone would be stepping into a situation whose consequences are unforeseeable.," Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said amid NATO discussions about a possible no-fly zone over Libya.
The trans-Atlantic pressure occurred amid intense diplomatic discussions around the world, with European countries adding financial sanctions to isolate Gadhafi's government.
Speaking at a House budget hearing, Clinton announced that the U.S. was suspending its relationship with Libya's remaining envoys to the country, though the move falls short of severing diplomatic relations. She said she would meet with Libyan opposition figures when she travels to Egypt and Tunisia next week, marking the highest level contact between the U.S. and anti-Gadhafi elements controlling most of the east of the country.
In Libya, government forces drove hundreds of rebels from a strategic oil port with a withering rain of rockets and tank shells on Thursday, expanding Gadhafi's control as Western nations scrambled to devise a unified strategy to stop him. Meanwhile, France blazed a diplomatic trail by announcing plans to exchange ambassadors with the rebels' Interim Governing Council after French President Nicolas Sarkozy met with two representatives of the group based in the eastern Libyan city of Benghazi.
While discussions continued on a European proposal at the United Nations for a no-fly zone to prevent Gadhafi from launching aerial attacks on civilians or the rebels, the Obama administration voiced its strongest words of caution. Part of the hesitation concerns an acknowledgement that any such zone would require an assault on Libyan air defenses, a step tantamount to war, while U.S. officials were also worried about shouldering the costs and risks involved with the operation.
"It's easy for people to say `Do this, do that,' and then they turn and say 'Okay, U.S. go do it,'" Clinton said of the international negotiations. She said that would mean the U.S. suffers the "consequences if something bad happens."
At a Senate hearing, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper echoed the warning and stressed that the Libyan government's military might was stronger than it has been described. He said there was no indication that Gadhafi would step down and offer a speedy resolution to the crisis.
"Gadhafi is in this for the long haul," Clapper said. "I don't think he has any intention, despite some of the press speculation to the contrary, of leaving. From all evidence that we have ... he appears to be hunkering down for the duration."
Clapper said Libya's air defenses were "quite substantial," describing the high threat posed to U.S. or NATO pilots if the administration were to endorse proposals to enforce a no-fly zone.
The hearings were taking a place a day after President Barack Obama's top national security aides held private talks on military options in Libya. Officials said they gained a growing sense that a no-fly zone would have a limited impact on halting the violence, though they stressed that the option remained on the table.
U.S. officials have noted in recent days that the tactic may be ineffective because Gadhafi appears to be using his planes sparingly in his crackdown on rebels. Military experts say the use of jets by Gadhafi loyalists poses less of a threat than the deployment of attack helicopters, which can get around flight prohibitions because they are harder to detect.
And the Obama administration has little enthusiasm anyhow for military intervention, fearful of plunging into another war with a Muslim country as it tries to manage exit strategies for U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Officials said the U.S. has begun terminating the diplomatic status of all Libyan diplomats in Washington. The U.S. will resume embassy functions with Libya if there is a change in government, they said, speaking on condition of anonymity because they weren't authorized to talk about the matter.
Clinton said her visit to the Middle East is designed to press democratic reforms after the rebellions that ousted longtime autocratic rulers in Tunisia and Egypt. She will be the first cabinet-level American official to visit either country since unrest exploded across the Arab world in January, and the trip comes as the U.S. tries to maintain its influence in the region and reassure its Arab allies of continued support amid rapidly changing developments on the ground.
Associated Press writers Adam Goldman and Donna Cassata contributed to this report.