As NATO assumed command of coalition operations in Libya this morning, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates told the House Armed Services Committee that U.S. forces will “significantly ramp down” their commitment in the operation.
Gates said U.S. efforts in Libya will provide the capabilities other nations don’t have in kind and scale.
During the first phase of Operation Odyssey Dawn, U.S. forces provided the bulk of military assets and firepower, logistical support and overall command and control, Gates told the lawmakers. The U.S. focus as the operation continues will be electronic attack, aerial refueling, lift, search and rescue, and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance support, he said.
“There will be no American boots on the ground in Libya,” the secretary added.
Gates stressed that coalition military operations in Libya are not aimed at ending the regime of Moammar Gadhafi. “In my view,” he said, “the removal of Colonel Gadhafi will likely be achieved over time through political and economic measures and by his own people.”
What the NATO-led mission, now called Operation Unified Protector, can do is “degrade Gadhafi’s military capacity to the point where he –- and those around him –- will be forced into a very different set of choices and behaviors in the future,” Gates said.
The secretary said Libya’s possible destabilizing effect in the Middle East represents a strong national interest for the United States.
“In the space of about two months, the world has watched an extraordinary story unfold in the Middle East,” he said. “The turbulence being experienced by virtually every country in the region presents both perils and promise for the United States.”
President Barack Obama in February articulated a core set of principles — opposing violence, standing for universal values, and speaking out on the need for political change and reform — in response to widespread protests sweeping the region, Gates said.
“In the case of Libya, our government, our allies, and our partners in the region, watched with alarm as the regime of Moammar Gadhafi responded to legitimate protests with brutal suppression and a military campaign against his own people,” he said.
Gadhafi’s use of force against the Libyan people created the prospect of significant civilian casualties and hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing to Egypt, Gates said, potentially destabilizing that country in the midst of its own difficult transition.
“Once the Arab League and Gulf Cooperation Council called on Gadhafi to cease his attacks, and our European allies expressed a willingness to commit real military resources, it became apparent that the time and conditions were right for international military action,” he said.
“The security and prosperity of the United States is linked to the security and prosperity of the broader Middle East,” the secretary said. “It continues to be in our national interest to prevent Gadhafi from visiting further depredations on his own people, destabilizing his neighbors, and setting back the progress the people of the Middle East have made in recent weeks.”