WASHINGTON — The U.S. should avoid developing a closer relationship with Libyan opposition forces, defense leaders said Thursday, telling an often hostile Congress that foreign nations must now take over airstrike responsibilities and any effort to train and equip the rebels.
With the U.S. role in Libya at a turning point, the next critical decision is how, if at all, the U.S. chooses to support the opposition forces, particularly in the face of the ongoing budget crisis at home. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said he is opposed to arming the rebels, a step his boss President Barack Obama has not ruled out.
Gates and Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said it was time to turn the bulk of the conflict over to NATO.
The U.S. turned over control of the military operation to NATO Thursday, just hours before Gates and Mullen addressed Congress.
"The question of what kind of assistance to provide to the opposition is clearly the next step in terms of non-lethal or weapons," Gates told senators. "All the members of the coalition are thinking about that at this point, but as with our government, no decisions have been made."
Gates and Mullen said that if the rebels are to get arms and training, countries other than the U.S. should provide that assistance. And they stressed that the U.S. still does not have enough good information about who the disparate opposition forces are.
"My view would be, if there is going to be that kind of (training) assistance to the opposition, there are plenty of sources for it other than the United States," Gates told the House Armed Services Committee.
Many lawmakers were angered by what they said was the administration's lack of candor with Congress ahead of the Libya mission. Several complained that the mission is expensive and ill-defined. The ongoing scope of U.S. military action drew heated debate among senators unhappy that the Pentagon will no longer be conducting airstrikes in the coming days — leaving that key combat responsibility to allies such as the French, British and Canadians.
Mullen said that after April 2, U.S. aircraft will be available to help with airstrikes if requested by the NATO commander. Senators objected, with some suggesting that the U.S. is abandoning the campaign just as strongman Moammar Gadhafi is regrouping and routing the opposition forces.
"For the United States to withdraw our unique offensive capabilities at this time would send the wrong signal," said Sen. John McCain, top Republican on the Senate Armed Services panel. He said the U.S. must not fail in Libya and said he spoke as someone experienced in a lost conflict, a clear reference to his time as a prisoner of war in Vietnam.
The White House, meanwhile, said arming the rebels is still under consideration, but press secretary Jay Carney said he saw "no contradiction" between that and Gates' remarks. He added, "what the president said is that he has not ruled it in or out."
As yet, none of Obama's top advisers have publicly advocated a significant expansion of the U.S. role aiding the opposition.
The vigorous debate, which stretched throughout the day on Capitol Hill, underscores the tensions across the U.S. government over how best to aid Libyan civilians and accomplish the administration's goal of ousting Gadhafi, without committing America to a costly war the public doesn't understand and many don't support.
"I know that I am preoccupied with avoiding mission creep and avoiding having an open-ended, very large scale American commitment in this," said Gates. "We are in serious budget trouble."
The defense leaders also made it clear to Congress that there will be no U.S. military ground forces in Libya. They would not comment on reports that the CIA has small teams working with the Libyan rebels.
The military leaders told Congress the rebels remain a largely unknown quantity, but Gates defended the U.S. intervention, saying the opposition is a better alternative than Gadhafi. Gates said Gadhafi has been a persistent and dangerous enemy, but he also acknowledged that efforts to oust the Libyan leader may not work.
"You could have a situation where you achieve the military goal and not achieve the political goal" of regime change, Gates said.
He added that the U.S. had considered the possibility of a prolonged stalemate. And although he said the United States could not accept a reorganized Libyan government with Gadhafi in power, he steered around the question of what the U.S. could do to prevent that.
Gates said that he believes political and economic pressures eventually will drive Gadhafi from power, but the military operation will help force him to make those choices by degrading his defense capabilities.
The defense leaders struggled to avoid being dragged into the increasingly bitter conflict between Congress and the White House over authorization for the military operation.
In fact, Obama gathered congressional leaders at the White House and by telephone the day before the mission began to inform them of his decision. The Senate also unanimously approved a resolution March 1 backing the no-fly zone.
Responding to the complaints, Deputy Secretary of State Jim Steinberg told a separate House panel on Thursday that "stopping a potential humanitarian disaster of massive proportions became a question of hours, not days. And so we acted decisively to prevent a potential massacre."
Separately, the State Department said the U.S. was not involved in the defection of Gadhafi's top diplomat, Moussa Koussa, although a U.S. diplomat had talked with Koussa.
"He's obviously been a part of the Gadhafi regime for many, many years," State Department spokesman Mark Toner said. "I obviously don't want to talk about what conversations we may be having with him and what kind of intelligence we may be able to gather from him, but he certainly has a wealth of information to share, should he decide to."
Associated Press writers Adam Goldman and Robert Burns contributed to this report.