WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama's top national security aides emerged from private talks Wednesday with a growing sense that imposing a no-fly zone over Libya would have a "limited impact" on halting the kind of violence raging in the North African nation, senior administration officials said.
That position, sure to shape the international debate about potential military intervention in Libya, came as Obama's principal security aides reviewed potential recommendations for the president during a White House Situation Room meeting.
The officials underscored that the creation of a no-fly zone over Libyan airspace was not off the table from the U.S. perspective if the facts on the ground change, chiefly Moammar Gadhafi's use of air power to attack the rebels threatening his grip on power.
The administration maintains that planning for such intervention should continue, particularly at a pivotal NATO meeting in Brussels of defense chiefs on Thursday, and that the no-fly zone also remains in consideration as a way to increase pressure on Gadhafi.
Yet for now, the no-fly zone option is not seen as having high impact in ending the violence, said the officials, who spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the private strategy discussions.
The officials familiar with the meeting would not elaborate.
But other officials have noted that the no-fly zone tactic may be ineffective in part 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.
Even before Wednesday's talks, the Obama administration has had little enthusiasm for military intervention in Libya or for the no-fly zone in particular. Defense Secretary Robert Gates has said that beginning the flights would require an assault on Libyan air defenses, a step tantamount to war. And Obama officials have consistently warned of the costs and the risks.
In order to ground the Libyan air force – thereby providing air cover for the rebels – U.S. and partner aircraft would first attack Libya's anti-aircraft defenses. Freed of the threat of being shot down, U.S. and partner planes could then patrol Libya's air space and down any planes that got airborne.
The prospect of a no-fly zone has come to dominate attention even as the White House has consistently held that it is just one option that could be used to try to protect civilians and pressuring Gadhafi to give up power. Obama says he will not be "hamstrung" by ruling out options but has never publicly given it the attention in this crisis that other world leaders have.
Obama did not attend Wednesday's meeting, and the White House said no action was imminent. Officials set no timeline.
"We're not at a decision point," Obama's spokesman, Jay Carney, said as the White House sought hard to inject perspective into a fast-changing conflict.
Gadhafi's forces pounded rebels with artillery and gunfire in at least two major cities on Wednesday, adding more pressure on nations and international bodies to figure out what to do – and whether they can agree.
The NATO alliance said it was planning for any eventuality in the Libyan crisis. But with Gates preparing to join Thursday's NATO meeting to discuss military options, there was little sign they would agree to set up a no-fly zone.
The United States held to its right to show its military might unilaterally, including potential naval maneuvers closer to Libyan shores. But Obama's admonition for international action – not go-it-alone-force – remains a driving principle of any military intervention.
That approach offers broader legitimacy and shared burden, but also more complicated politics.
"We believe it's important that this not be an American or a NATO or a European effort; it needs to be an international one," Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Wednesday on CBS. She conceded divisions within the United Nations Security Council but said that a "good, solid international package" was being considered.
Obama's aides cast the Situation Room meeting as one in a series of discussions as the president's top security advisers sought to rally around recommendations for him.
Carney said he did not want to even suggest that more action will be taken. He offered a broad defense of what the United States has already done on its own and with the United Nations in response to the crisis, from freezing assets to imposing sanctions, and insisted no such response has ever happened faster.
Still, the deepening and bloody standoff in Libya, combined with Obama's tough declaration that Gadhafi must go, has kept the pressure on the president to do more.
Gadhafi has seized the momentum, battering the rebels with airstrikes and artillery fire and repulsing their westward march toward the capital, Tripoli.
A no-fly zone has become the best-known response option and the one that European allies, in particular, consider an effective international response.
Britain and France are pushing for the U.N. to create a no-fly zone over the country, and while the U.S. may be persuaded to sign on, such a move is unlikely to win the backing of veto-wielding Security Council members Russia and China, which traditionally object to such steps as infringements on national sovereignty.
"There are individuals and countries within the UN who question the efficacy of a no-fly zone, the need for a no-fly zone, what it would entail. I think those are somewhat justified questions," State Department spokesman Mark Toner said. "We're still evaluating the option." Meanwhile, NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen told reporters Wednesday that "NATO is not looking to intervene in Libya."
He said the alliance, however, was doing the 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.
Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell indicated Wednesday that the U.S. was unlikely to make a decision this week on any military action.
U.S. military officials are providing Obama with options that can range from humanitarian assistance and a show of force to war-fighting tactics. Military action could include creating and enforcing the no-fly zone, using Air and Navy forces in the region to jam and take out Libya's air defenses, and ramping up intelligence and surveillance in the region.
There are at least five major U.S. warships in the Mediterranean, including the USS Kearsarge with its Marine contingent on board. And there are Air Force fighters, bombers, tankers and electronic warfare aircraft easily available from bases in Germany, England and Italy.
Associated Press writers Matthew Lee and Lolita C. Baldor in Washington and Robert Burns and Slobodan Lekic in Brussels contributed to this report.