By Ross Colvin and Andrew Quinn
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The White House on Wednesday strongly defended its response to the turmoil in Libya, insisting it has taken "dramatic action" and rebutting criticism its consensus-based approach is too cautious.
As President Barack Obama's top advisers met to debate what to do next, Muammar Gaddafi's forces halted a rebel advance in the east of the oil-producing North African country and made gains against others in western areas.
A range of options are on the table in the White House situation room, U.S. officials said, including a "no-fly" zone to ground Gaddafi's warplanes. But White House spokesman Jay Carney cautioned that no decision on firm action was expected to emerge from the meeting.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, CIA Director Leon Panetta, and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, attended the meeting but Obama was not expected to be there.
The White House session came ahead of Thursday's meeting of NATO defense ministers, including U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, in Brussels. A U.S. official said Libya options were being "teed up" for discussion there.
The United States, embroiled in wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, has been stressing the need for international support for any intervention in Libya. On Tuesday, Clinton said Washington would not act without a U.N. Security Council resolution.
At the Security Council, where Britain and France are pushing for a resolution authorizing a no-fly zone, diplomats say the Americans have made clear they are not ready to press ahead with the measure.
LIBYA VERSUS BALKANS
The White House has come under fire from Republican and Democratic politicians, conservative commentators and others in recent days for what critics say is its failure to match tough talk with action to help rebels force Gaddafi from power.
"The Obama administration is throwing out so many conflicting messages on Libya that they are blunting any potential pressure on the Libyan regime and weakening American credibility," said an editorial in The New York Times, a newspaper that is often supportive of Obama's policies.
The administration has frozen $30 billion in Libyan assets, backed U.N. sanctions, sent military transport aircraft to help evacuate refugees from neighboring Tunisia and put warships off the Libyan coast for possible humanitarian efforts.
"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 as we move forward," Carney told reporters.
"There has never been a situation where the international community, with leadership by the United States, has acted as quickly as it has to respond to this kind of situation."
Carney compared the international response to Libya with the reaction to the Balkan wars of the 1990s. It took three months to impose an arms embargo on Yugoslavia after Croatia declared independence, he said. In the case of Libya, just nine days.
Obama's critics say direct intervention is needed to turn the tide in favor of rebels who are disorganized and fragmented and all but powerless to fend off repeated air strikes.
While the idea of a no-fly zone is popular among many politicians in Washington, Obama's officials have been openly skeptical about its potential effectiveness. Arming the rebels is another option but U.S. officials say they do not know enough about their intentions to send in weapons right now.
Whatever course he takes, Obama will be mindful of inflaming anti-American sentiment in the Muslim world and also conscious that U.S. involvement in Libya, however tentative at first, is not without political risk for him domestically.
Americans sent him a clear message in November's congressional elections in which his Democrats suffered major losses -- focus on creating jobs after the worst recession since the 1930s.
The Libyan crisis could yet be a factor in the 2012 U.S. presidential election. If higher fuel prices persist because of the turmoil there and elsewhere in the region, that could give opposition Republicans more ammunition against Obama, analysts said.
(Additional reporting by Louis Charbonneau in New York and Phil Stewart, Jeff Mason and Andrew Quinn in Washington; Editing by John O'Callaghan and Philip Barbara)