The NATO alliance says it is planning for "all eventualities" in the Libyan crisis, but with U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates preparing to join a meeting of alliance defense chiefs to discuss military options, there was little sign they would agree to set up a no-fly zone over the North African country.
"NATO is not looking to intervene in Libya," NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen told reporters Wednesday. "But we have asked our military to conduct the necessary planning for all eventualities."
The NATO chief said the alliance will extend its surveillance of Libya's coastal area by keeping an airborne warning and control plane on patrol 24 hours a day, seven days a week. "And through that we will get a better picture of what is going on and that is of course essential to better inform our planning for all eventualities," he said.
The presence of Gates at Thursday's NATO meeting was expected to moderate any enthusiasm for moving quickly toward a no-fly zone _ a measure that would be intended to provide air cover for rebel forces trying to topple Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi. Gates told a House committee last week that establishing a no-fly zone would first require attacking Libya's air defenses _ an action that would be tantamount to war.
Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell said Gates is not necessarily opposed to a no-fly zone but he has been outspoken about the likely ramifications, risks and costs. The Obama administration has been caught between wanting to avoid appearing unsupportive of the anti-Gadhafi movement and committing to risky military action.
Gates spent two days conferring with NATO and U.S. commanders in Afghanistan and visiting U.S. troops earlier this week. Afghanistan represents NATO's largest military commitment, but developments in Libya were expected to dominate the alliance talks Thursday.
NATO appeared more likely to move forward with efforts to provide humanitarian assistance in Libya than with any more forceful military option, although even that did not look imminent.
At NATO headquarters on Wednesday, a senior U.S. official downplayed the prospect of NATO establishing a no-fly zone. He said it remained an option but that allies would want a U.N. Security Council action endorsing it in advance, and no such endorsement appears forthcoming. The official previewed the NATO talks on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject.
The official said a no-fly zone was achievable but would be "a difficult, costly and large operation," suggesting little U.S. enthusiasm under current circumstances. He also said there had been a noticeable decline in Libyan air attacks on insurgents in recent days, suggesting that a no-fly zone would not address the main problem for the rebels, which is their vulnerability to attack from the ground by pro-Gadhafi forces.
On Tuesday, President Barack Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron agreed to plan for the "full spectrum of possible responses" on Libya, including imposing a no-fly zone. According to a White House statement, the two leaders agreed that the objective must be an end to violence and the departure of Gadhafi "as quickly as possible."
This week's NATO meeting has been long scheduled, but the session focusing on Libya was added only as the crisis there has unfolded following a series of popular revolts against authoritarian regimes elsewhere in the region.
Libya's rebel movement appears to have hit a wall of overwhelming power from Gadhafi loyalists. Pro-regime forces halted their drive on Tripoli with a heavy barrage of rockets in the east and threatened Tuesday to recapture the closest rebel-held city to the capital in the west. On Wednesday, Gadhafi appeared to be keeping up the momentum he has seized in recent days in his fight against rebels trying to move on the capital.