PARIS – Under pressure from allies and growing calls for military intervention in Libya, the Obama administration on Monday held its first high-level talks with the Libyan opposition and introduced a liaison to deal full time with their ranks. But it remained undecided about exactly how much support to lend a group it still knows little about while turmoil and uncertainty increase across the Arab world.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton held a late-night, 45-minute meeting with a senior Libyan opposition figure after discussing the widening crisis with French President Nicolas Sarkozy. Sarkozy, along with British Prime Minister David Cameron, meanwhile, stepped up calls for world powers to isolate Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi with a no-fly zone, amid diplomatic differences over how much backing to give rebels.
Clinton’s closed-door meeting with opposition figure member Mahmoud Jibril in a luxury Paris hotel was shrouded in secrecy until it happened, with neither the time nor the identity of her interlocutors announced beforehand. Neither Jibril, an official in the newly formed Interim Governing Council based in the eastern Libyan city of Benghazi, nor Clinton appeared or made any comments about their talks. Jibril met with Sarkozy in Paris last week before photographers and journalists.
Jibril was introduced to Clinton by the administration’s new point man for the Libyan opposition, Chris Stevens, who was until recently the deputy chief of mission at the now-shuttered U.S. Embassy in Tripoli.
“They had a private and candid conversation about ways in which the United States can assist the Libyan people in their efforts against the Gadhafi regime,” Clinton spokesman Philippe Reines said after the talks.
Although the meeting might have been a deciding factor in the administration’s approach to the opposition, no announcements were made after and the mystery surrounding it underscored the administration’s lack of clarity as to who is who in the movement that has sprung up to topple Gadhafi from the perch he has held for 42 years.
Sarkozy has taken the lead in recognizing an interim council as Libya’s legitimate government. The U.S. has yet to decide on such recognition but has severed ties with the Libyan Embassy in Washington and boosted its outreach to the opposition while maintaining caution on a no-fly zone.
Speaking to Parliament in London, Cameron said that time was of essence in responding to the situation in Libya, and said NATO was drawing up contingency plans for a no-fly zone.
“Every day Gadhafi is brutalizing his own people,” he said. “Time is of the essence. There should be no letup in the pressure we put on this regime.”
The debate has turned increasingly heated in the U.S. with demands from some in Congress to support the rebels with air cover and weapons. President Barack Obama and his top national security aides have so far demurred, fearing it would further strain America’s already stretched military and entangle the U.S. in an expensive and messy conflict that could be perceived as meddling.
On Monday, one of Hillary Clinton’s closest confidantes, Anne Marie Slaughter, who until last month was the State Department’s director of policy planning, wrote an opinion piece in the New York Times titled “Fiddling While Libya Burns” that implored the administration to act. Now a professor at Princeton, Slaughter argued that the U.S. has an obligation to intervene to prevent wholesale slaughter and embrace the potential emergence of democracy in Libya.