Hemmed in by two other wars, an overstretched military and serious budgetary woes, the United States is reducing its role in the multinational military operation in Libya and is looking to other nations to arm and train rebels fighting to oust dictator Moammar Gadhafi, top U.S. Defense officials said Thursday.
"My view is that the future of Libya -- the United States ought not take responsibility for that. I think there are other countries both in the region and our allies in Europe who can participate in the effort," Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates told the Senate Armed Services Committee. "I just don't think we need to take on another one."
And in his strongest language since the United States deployed warplanes to protect Libyan civilians, Gates ruled out sending any U.S. forces to Libya "as long as I'm in this job" -- a viewpoint that he said President Obama shared. But he admitted that the rebels needed help to withstand the assault from Gadhafi's forces, even with NATO warplanes overhead. Gates' comments -- which were echoed by Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff -- during a grueling day of congressional hearings on Libya provided a window into the debate inside the Obama administration over just how much U.S. support should be given to Gadhafi's outgunned opposition.
"History has demonstrated that an entrenched enemy, like the Libyan regime, can be resilient to air power," said Rep. Buck McKeon, R-Calif., chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, which held the first hearing. "With Iraq and Afghanistan already occupying a considerable share of American resources, I sincerely hope that this is not the start of a third elongated conflict."
Some lawmakers said they didn't see how Obama could achieve his goal of driving the Middle East's longest ruling dictator from power if the U.N.-authorized operation were restricted to protecting civilians and delivering humanitarian aid, but didn't include regime change.
GOP lawmakers in particular criticized Obama for authorizing the use of U.S. military force without first obtaining congressional authorization.
But opinions also sliced the other way. Several GOP senators slammed the decision to scale back U.S. participation in the NATO-led operation, saying that with the rebels again retreating because bad weather has hampered allied airstrikes, now is not the time to be pulling out the ground-attack and tank-killing aircraft that only the United States flies.
"I believe this would be a profound mistake with potentially disastrous consequences," said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who expressed concern that a "long and bloody stalemate" will develop in which a "wounded and angry" Gadhafi will cling to power and become "more of a threat to the world and to the Libyan people."
Gates and Mullen reassured McCain that once the U.S. AC-130 gunships and A-10 tankbusters are withdrawn in the next several days, some will remain available for use by the NATO commander if Gadhafi's forces threaten the eastern city of Benghazi, the headquarters of the rebellion.
But the pair also made it clear that the United States would otherwise limit itself to a supporting role in which American aircraft and ships will jam Gadhafi's communications and provide midair refueling, intelligence and other specialized aid to Britain, France and other nations that are assuming leading roles in the operation.
White House spokesman Jay Carney said that Obama had taken no decision on whether the U.S. should arm and train the rebels.
Gates declined to address the presence inside Libya of CIA paramilitary teams that U.S. officials say are maintaining contact with the rebels and gathering intelligence.
Gates and Mullen testified just hours after the 28-nation NATO alliance assumed overall command of the operation to enforce a U.N. resolution that authorized NATO and other nations to take military measures to enforce the no-fly zone and protect civilians from being the subject of military attack.
Canadian Lt. Gen. Charles Bouchard is commander of the NATO operation, which assumed control of Libyan airspace on Thursday.
Meanwhile, Gadhafi struck a defiant stance after two high-profile defections from his regime.
Gadhafi's message was undercut by its delivery -- a scroll across the bottom of state TV as he remained out of sight. The White House said the strongman's inner circle was clearly crumbling with the loss of Foreign Minister Moussa Koussa, who flew from Tunisia to England on Wednesday.
Ali Abdessalam Treki, a former foreign minister and U.N. General Assembly president, announced his departure on several opposition websites the next day, saying "It is our nation's right to live in freedom and democracy and enjoy a good life."
Gadhafi accused the leaders of the countries attacking his forces of being "affected by power madness."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.