Washington is now pushing for U.N. to authorize bombing of Gadhafi forces.
WASHINGTON - The prospect of a deadly siege of the rebel stronghold in Benghazi, Libya, has produced a striking shift in tone from the Obama administration, which is now pushing for the United Nations to authorize bombing of Libyan tanks and artillery to try to halt the advance of forces loyal to Moammar Gadhafi.
The administration, which remains deeply reluctant to be drawn into an armed conflict in yet another Muslim country, is nevertheless backing a resolution in the Security Council that would give countries a broad range of options for aiding the Libyan rebels, including military steps that go well beyond a no-fly zone.
Administration officials -- who have been debating a no-fly zone for weeks -- concluded that such a step now would be "too little, too late" for rebels who have been pushed back to Benghazi. That suggests more aggressive measures, which some military analysts have called a no-drive zone to prevent Gadhafi from moving tanks and artillery near Benghazi.
The United States is insisting that any military action would have to be carried out by an international coalition, including Libya's Arab neighbors.
The rapid advance of forces loyal to Gadhafi, combined with rising calls from the Arab world to prevent a rout of the opposition, has changed the calculations of the administration, which had clung to a belief that interfering in a Middle East uprising could provoke an anti-U.S. backlash.
"The turning point was really the Arab League statement on Saturday," Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Wednesday to reporters traveling with her in Cairo. "That was an extraordinary statement in which the Arab League asked for Security Council action against one of its own members."
Clinton said she was hopeful that the Security Council would vote no later than Thursday. The U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Susan Rice, is in intensive negotiations over the language of a resolution, sponsored by Lebanon, another Arab state, and backed by France and Britain.
It is unclear how much the administration is willing to put on the line in Libya, given its aversion to being entangled in another war and its clear calculation that Libya does not constitute as vital a security interest to the United States as other countries in the region, notably Egypt or Saudi Arabia. Some administration officials voiced the hope that the mere threat of military action could restrain Gadhafi.
Still, interviews with several administration officials suggested that events on the ground were forcing its hand. "The regime's military gains have gotten everyone's attention," said one senior official.
President Obama is under pressure from both foreign leaders and allies in Congress to take decisive action. The French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, sent a letter to the United States and other members of the Security Council, urging them to vote for the Lebanese resolution authorizing a no-fly zone, saying that the world had only days to head off a Gadhafi victory.
'Within 48 hours'
On Wednesday, one of Gadhafi's sons, Seif al-Islam, urged the rebels to leave the country, saying, "Within 48 hours everything will be finished. Our forces are almost in Benghazi."
Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said he regretted that the debate in Washington over how to respond to Libya had dragged on so long, allowing Gadhafi to regain his footing.
Administration officials contend that a no-fly zone alone would not be effective, in part because they say it could not be set up before April. Among the other measures being proposed by the United States: sending foreign soldiers to Libya to advise the rebels or financing them with some of the $32 billion belonging to the Gadhafi regime that was frozen by the Treasury Department. Neither of these steps, however, would come in time to stave off an assault by Gadhafi's forces on Benghazi.
"What everybody is focused on is drawing a line, literally in the sand, around Benghazi, to prevent Gadhafi's forces from capturing the city and staging a bloodbath," said Tom Malinowski, the Washington director of Human Rights Watch. "If Gadhafi wins, it could kill the moment in the entire Middle East."