WASHINGTON — Preparing for the prospect of deeper international intervention, President Barack Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron conferred Tuesday on the spectrum of military and humanitarian responses to Libya's worsening civil strife. The British leader bluntly said after the talk that the world cannot stand aside and let Moammar Gadhafi brutalize his people.
In weighing the options, the Obama administration underscored that any authorization of a no-fly zone over Libya must come from the United Nations Security Council.
"We think it's important that the United Nations make this decision – not the United States," Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton told Britain's Sky News. The comment reflected Obama's thinking that any action intended to halt Libya's violence must carry the legitimacy and strength of an international coalition.
Obama's top national security advisers were to meet Wednesday at the White House to outline what steps are realistic to pressure Gadhafi to end the violence and leave power, officials said. Clinton, national security adviser Tom Donilon and CIA chief Leon Panetta are among those expected to attend as Obama's team centered in on recommendations for him. The president himself was not expected to attend.
Obama and Cameron agreed to press ahead on potential responses from the U.S. and its NATO allies, including the creation of a no-fly zone over Libyan airspace to keep Gadhafi from bombarding the rebels seeking to oust him from power, according to statements released from their offices. Other options including steeper surveillance, humanitarian assistance and enforcement of an arms embargo as Libya slips from Gadhafi's grip and into a civil war.
"We have got to prepare for what we might have to do if he (Gadhafi) goes on brutalizing his own people," Cameron told the BBC.
Cameron said his call with Obama was to talk "about the planning we have to do in case this continues and in case he does terrible things to his own people." The prime minister added: "I don't think we can stand aside and let that happen."
Libya's rebel movement has been countered by overwhelming power from loyalists to Gadhafi. Pro-regime forces halted its drive on Tripoli with a heavy barrage of rockets in the east and threatened on Tuesday to recapture the closest rebel-held city to the capital in the west.
The continuing violence increased pressure, from NATO to Washington, for intervention.
Rebels are fighting to oust Gadhafi from power after more than 41 years, and his bloody crackdown has left hundreds, and perhaps thousands, dead. Libya's U.N. ambassador, who broke with the regime, has urged the U.N. Security Council to impose a no-fly zone to prevent Gadhafi's forces from bombing civilians. Britain and France are drafting a resolution, but no decision has been made.
The United States has taken action itself and worked with world partners to impose sanctions on the Libyan regime and freeze its assets.
Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona said Tuesday that the creation of a no-fly zone could help hasten Gadhafi's exit.
"Every day and every hour that goes by, innocent Libyans are being attacked and massacred from the air," McCain said. "I also worry about additional actions that Gadhafi could take such as bombing oil facilities, which could have extreme environmental consequences."
Earlier in the day, at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing, McCain pressed senior Navy and Marine Corps officials about U.S. military equipment in the region and how difficult it would be to impose a no-fly zone. The senior military officials described Libya's air defense as "modest" but insisted that combat operations would be a precursor to any action.
Defense Secretary Roberts Gates told Congress last week that in order to ground the Libyan air force – thereby providing air cover for the rebels – Libya's anti-aircraft defenses would have to be attacked.
Sen. Richard Lugar of Indiana, the senior Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, on Tuesday warned that imposing a no-fly zone would be a costly "act of war."
"The United States should not, in my view, launch military intervention into yet another Muslim country without thinking long and hard about the consequences and implications," Lugar said.
Gates "has been on the record, and his views have not changed," said his spokesman, Geoff Morrell, who was traveling with the defense secretary Tuesday in Afghanistan to visit coalition troops.
Morrell said Gates is not opposed to a no-fly zone but has raised concerns that it might not be as easy or effective as some would say.
The White House meeting of the president's highest security advisers on Wednesday will examine the ramifications of a no-fly zone over Libya and potential military options, although the final decision will rest with Obama, officials said.
A highly visible show of force could involve U.S. ships moving into the Gulf of Sidra and lingering in international waters, which would be about 14 miles off shore. Other options include greater use of surveillance flights, intelligence-gathering and ongoing support for evacuations and humanitarian assistance.
On Capitol Hill, House Armed Services Committee Chairman Rep. Buck McKeon, R-Calif., took a swipe at Obama at the end of a news conference.
"He's doing a great job of doing nothing on Libya," McKeon said.
Clinton, in the Sky News interview, said the United States wants Gadhafi to go peacefully. He has shown no intention to do so.
"If that's not possible, then we are going to work with the international community," she said. "Now, there are countries that do not agree with that. We think it's important that the United Nations make this decision, not the United States, and so far the United Nations has not done that. I think it's very important that this not be a U.S.-led effort, because this comes from the people of Libya themselves; this doesn't come from the outside."
Associated Press writers Matthew Lee, Erica Werner, Matthew Pennington, Donna Cassata, Lolita C. Baldor in Washington and Cassandra Vinograd in London contributed to this report.