Libyan rebel fighters bring a wounded comrade to a hospital in Port Brega.… (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles…)
Reporting from Washington — With forces loyal to Moammar Kadafi continuing to pound and push rebel forces into retreat, America's top intelligence official said the Libyan dictator was likely to prevail in the long term, a fresh indication that the current reliance on diplomacy by Western nations may not be enough to topple him.
In a blunt assessment, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper told a Senate panel Thursday that the battlefield momentum had begun to shift toward Kadafi's regime and, because of its superior firepower and logistical capabilities, "I think over the longer term that the regime will prevail."
The retired Air Force general said his assessment was based in part on secret intelligence, which indicated that special military units loyal to Kadafi and equipped with tanks and artillery have been able to maintain and replenish their weapons.
Even if Kadafi doesn't defeat the rebels, Clapper said, Libya could end up split into two or three parts in "a Somali-like situation," which senators said would be disastrous for U.S. interests.
Clapper's comments sent the White House scrambling to organize an unusual on-the-record conference call with reporters by national security advisor Thomas Donilon, who said Clapper's view didn't take into account the pressure the U.S. and other countries were bringing, such as economic sanctions, travel bans and the freezing of assets.
"We've isolated Kadafi and denied him resources," Donilon said. "We're ensuring accountability, building international support and building capabilities to assist the Libyan people. It's a fluid situation and it's not going to be resolved overnight. But … we've acted quite swiftly and steadily to ramp up our efforts," Donilon said.
The clashing Obama administration views came on a day when France became the first nation to recognize the opposition government that has been established in Benghazi, in eastern Libya. That followed a meeting in Paris between French President Nicolas Sarkozy and two envoys from the Libyan opposition, and the French said they would send an ambassador to Benghazi soon.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton told a House committee that she would be meeting with representatives of the provisional government in eastern Libya next week. U.S. officials have been speaking regularly to opposition leaders for two weeks and are taking steps toward determining whether to officially recognize the rebel groups.
The leader of the provisional government is Mustapha Abdul Jalil, a former justice minister who is a devout Muslim but also a firm believer in the rule of law, current and former U.S. officials said.
U.S. officials pointed out that they are barred from providing arms to the rebels under a U.N. resolution adopted last month. They could, however, seek a waiver if they decided it was desirable to arm the groups.
Kadafi's determination to fight back against the opposition has rattled the West, which had watched democratic forces in Tunisia and Egypt topple authoritarian regimes without international military intervention. But Libya has presented a contrary, darker example.
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said that if the four-decade dictator was able to defeat the rebels, "it would signal to rulers across the region that the best way to maintain power in the face of peaceful demands for justice is through swift and merciless violence."
"Perhaps the greater concern for all of us should be what it would mean for America's credibility and moral standing if a tyrant were allowed to massacre Arabs and Muslims in Libya, and we watched it happen," McCain said.
McCain and Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) contended that the Obama administration should do more to help the rebels, including a no-fly zone, to prevent Kadafi from retaining power.
"That's a very bad outcome, and it calls out to our leadership here in Washington to act quickly to not let this happen," Lieberman said.
He suggested "perhaps supplying them with weapons, perhaps sharing intelligence with them about the movement of the Kadafi forces, jam communications."
Although the Obama administration and European governments have said for weeks that military options were under consideration, there was little indication Thursday that North Atlantic Treaty Organization defense ministers, opening a two-day meeting in Brussels, were seriously contemplating a no-fly zone or other military assistance to Libyan rebels.
Anders Fogh Rasmussen, secretary-general of NATO, said the alliance would move more ships in the central Mediterranean to help monitor the U.N.-mandated arms embargo of Libya and provide humanitarian assistance. But he added that establishing a no-fly zone was not possible without "a clear United Nations mandate."
"Planning will continue. But that's the extent of it with respect to the no-fly zone," Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates told reporters.