WASHINGTON — 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 Gates told the Senate Armed Services Committee. "I just don't think we need to take on another one."
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.
The pair found themselves peppered by sharp questions during back-to-back Senate and House committee hearings that brought out the anger within both parties over the unknown length and costs of the third major U.S. military engagement in the Muslim world.
"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 President Barack 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, even though presidents of both parties have done the same since World War II.
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 U.S. flies.
"I believe this would be a profound mistake with potentially disastrous consequences," said Sen. John McCain, R-AZ, 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.
"We will in coming days significantly ramp down our commitment of other military capabilities and resources in this operation," Gates told the House committee. He added that U.S. aircraft would no longer take "an active part" in airstrikes against regime forces.
Repeatedly pressed by members of both parties about whether there would be American "boots on the ground," a euphemism for U.S. troops, Gates at one point replied, "Not as long as I'm in this job."
He and Mullen were repeatedly prodded in both hearings on whether the Obama administration would provide training and weapons to the rebels. Both strongly indicated that it was unlikely that the United States would take on that task.
"My view would be, if there is going to be that kind of assistance to the opposition, there are plenty of sources for it other than the United States," Gates told the House panel. "Somebody else should do that."
White House spokesman Jay Carney said that Obama had taken no decision on whether the U.S. should arm and train the rebels. But Carney said that Obama agrees with Gates that other countries should train Gadhafi's opponents.
Addressing the senators, Gates said he was determined to avoid major U.S. military involvement in Libya.
"I am preoccupied with avoiding mission creep and avoiding an open-ended, very large scale American commitment in this," he said. "We are in serious budget trouble."
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 on Gadhafi's forces and targets for the multinational coalition enforcing a U.N. authorized no-fly zone.
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 ofmilitary attack.
U.S.-led strikes by aircraft and cruise missiles that began just under two weeks ago have "degraded" Gadhafi's better armed, trained and more numerous forces by 20 to 25 percent, Mullen said.
But those loses, he continued, haven't been enough "to break" Gadhafi's fighting ability and his forces still enjoy a 10-1 advantage over the rebels.
The coalition strikes on Gadhafi's forces encroaching on Benghazi staved off what U.S. officials feared would be massacres of civilians, and allowed the rebels to mount a disorderly offensive that took them just short of the dictator's hometown of Sirte.
But bad weather in the past few days forced a cutback in coalition air operations, allowing regime forces to recover much of the ground they lost. Moreover, Mullen noted, Gadhafi's forces have been using civilian vehicles similar to those of the rebels, making it harder for coalition pilots to differentiate between the sides.
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY
Follow McClatchy on Twitter.