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Gates doesn't rule out no-fly zone for Libya

Pentagon Press Secretary Geoff Morrell says it's one of the options still on the table. But the defense secretary also wants to examine the possible consequences of such a move.

March 09, 2011|By David S. Cloud | Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
  • Defense Secretary Robert Gates, center, chats with 1st Lt. Mike Viti during a visit to Combat Outpost Kowall, west of the city of Kandahar, in southern Afghanistan.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates, center, chats with 1st Lt. Mike Viti during… (Mandel Ngan / AFP/Getty…)

Reporting from Kabul, Afghanistan — — Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates is not opposed to military action to protect rebels in Libya, including a no-fly zone, but he wants to explore the possible consequences of intervening in the crisis, his spokesman said Wednesday.

Gates "has not staked out opposition to any particular course of action," Pentagon Press Secretary Geoff Morrell told reporters traveling with Gates.

Morrell was addressing questions about Gates' position on creation of a no-fly zone that have arisen since he warned Congress against "loose talk" of such a move and noted that any effort to patrol Libyan airspace would probably have to be preceded by a bombing campaign to neutralize its air defenses.

Gates is heading to Brussels for a North Atlantic Treaty Organization meeting Thursday and Friday, where Libya is expected to be a major topic of discussion. He was in Afghanistan Monday and Tuesday for meetings with U.S. commanders, troops and Afghan officials.

On Wednesday, he is scheduled to attend a ceremony for the incoming head of U.S. Africa Command in Stutgart, Germany, and then fly to Brussels, where NATO has its headquarters.

As reports of airstrikes against rebels in Libya have continued in recent days, the White House has emphasized that a no-fly zone is one of the options it is considering along with NATO allies. Gates has said little publicly about the idea since his congressional testimony.

Morrell reiterated Wednesday that the Pentagon was preparing a list of military options regarding Libya, and that Gates would outline the risks of taking action as part of those discussions.

"We are committed to providing the president with the full range of options for him to consider, including a no-fly zone," Morrell said. "But [Gates] also sees it as his responsibility to provide the president and his national security team with the potential consequences of military action."

He played down reports of splits over how to respond to the Libya crisis among members of Obama's national security team.

"I don't know that there is the distance that some of you perceive there to be between [Gates'] position and others in the administration," Morrell told reporters.

Analysts and retired Air Force officers say a no-fly zone over Libya could be difficult without U.S. involvement. It could require hundreds of fighter aircraft and refueling tankers, an operation that could exceed the capabilities of Britain and France, which have been the most vocal NATO governments calling for an international response.

The White House must also weigh the risk that Libya might try to shoot down U.S. aircraft and of getting involved in an internal civil war that could continue for weeks or months. Even if a no-fly zone deterred Libyan airstrikes against rebels, it would not necessarily shift the tide of the fighting, potentially leaving the U.S. and its allies involved in a protracted intervention.

Morrell noted that the U.S. has already moved "significant assets" to the Mediterranean Sea and to countries in the region "to provide humanitarian assistance and other emergency response." U.S. Air Force transport planes have moved hundreds of refugees who had fled to Tunisia to escape the fighting.

david.cloud@latimes.com

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