WASHINGTON — The Obama administration cut ties with Libya's remaining representatives in the U.S. on Thursday and France became the first nation to recognize Moammar Gadhafi's opponents, adding diplomatic pressure on the Libyan government even as trans-Atlantic leaders stepped back from imminent military intervention.
In a day of intense discussions on two continents, the European Union added new sanctions on Libyan companies and Germany froze billions of dollars in Libyan government assets.
The bottom line: A bottom line that promises little but plans for the worst.
The United States and NATO allies agreed to develop contingency plans for air patrols over Libya to protect civilians, but most nations hope that the plans are never used.
"We all agreed that NATO will only act if there is demonstrable need, a sound legal basis and strong regional support," Defense Secretary Robert Gates said following discussions at NATO headquarters in Brussels.
The military alliance will continue examining "all military options," including protective aerial cover, Gates said. "But that's the extent of it."
In Washington, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton warned of tougher action to force Gadhafi to leave after 42 years in power. But she cautioned that a go-it-alone approach could have unforeseeable and devastating consequences.
The United States wants international backing for anything beyond modest humanitarian help for Libyans caught in violence that could soon slide into civil war, even if no plans for military intervention ever come to pass.
Clinton acknowledged that the administration was caught in a bind with Libya after four decades of stop-and-go relations and in light of the deep skepticism over U.S. motives in the Middle East.
"We can stand on the sidelines and hope and pray for the best; we can get so involved that we are accused of interfering, going after oil, trying to occupy another Islamic country," Clinton said.
"Or we can try to do what we are doing, which is, be smart about how we offer assistance, how we respond, how we bring the international community along. And that's the toughest of the options, but that's what we're trying to do," she said.
Speaking at a House budget hearing, Clinton announced that Washington was suspending relations with Libya's embassy to the United States, though the move falls short of completely severing diplomatic relations. She said she would meet with Libyan opposition figures when she travels to Egypt and Tunisia next week, marking the highest level contact between the U.S. and anti-Gadhafi elements controlling most of the east of the country.
Clinton will be the highest-ranking U.S. representative to visit those nations since political uprisings that toppled autocrats who were longtime U.S. allies earlier this year. The unrest spread, including to Libya, where it has produced the most sustained violence and the greatest risk of civil war. The Libyan violence also has profound economic consequences because, unlike Egypt and Tunisia, Libya is a major oil producer.
The diplomatic push came as Libyan government forces drove hundreds of the rebels from a strategic oil port with a withering rain of rockets and tank shells on Thursday, expanding Gadhafi's control as Western nations scrambled to devise a unified strategy to stop him.
Meanwhile, France became the first major power to announce plans to exchange ambassadors with the Libyan rebels' makeshift government, after French President Nicolas Sarkozy met with two representatives of the group based in the eastern Libyan city of Benghazi.
While discussions continued on a European proposal at the United Nations for authorization of a no-fly zone, the Obama administration voiced its strongest words of caution.
Part of the U.S. hesitation reflects an acknowledgement that any such zone would require an assault on Libyan air defenses, a step tantamount to war. American officials also are worried about shouldering the costs and risks involved with the operation.
"It's easy for people to say 'Do this, do that,' and then they turn and say 'OK, U.S. go do it,'" Clinton said of the international negotiations. She said that would mean the U.S. suffers the "consequences if something bad happens."
At a Senate hearing, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper echoed the warning and stressed that the Libyan government's military might was stronger than it has been described. He said there was no indication that Gadhafi would step down and offer a speedy resolution to the crisis.
"Gadhafi is in this for the long haul," Clapper said. "I don't think he has any intention, despite some of the press speculation to the contrary, of leaving. From all evidence that we have ... he appears to be hunkering down for the duration."
Clapper said Libya's air defenses trail only Egypt in its region and are "quite substantial," describing the high threat posed to U.S. or NATO pilots if the administration were to take on enforcement responsibility of a no-fly zone.
The Libyans possess a lot of Russian equipment with about 31 surface-to-air missile sites, or SAMs, he said. They also have a large number of portable SAMs and an air force of approximately 80 planes — split evenly among transports, helicopters and fighters.
Clapper said fighters have been used in attacks but the pilots "can't shoot straight" and haven't caused many casualties. But he stressed that it might take longer than two days to establish a no-fly zone.
The hearings were taking a place a day after President Barack Obama's top national security aides held private talks on military options in Libya. Officials said they gained a growing sense that a no-fly zone would have a limited impact on halting the violence, though they stressed that the option remained on the table.
U.S. officials have noted in recent days that the tactic may be ineffective because Gadhafi appears to be using his planes sparingly in his crackdown on rebels. Military experts say the use of jets by Gadhafi loyalists poses less of a threat than the deployment of attack helicopters, which can get around flight prohibitions because they are harder to detect.
The Obama administration has little enthusiasm for military intervention, fearful of plunging into another war with a Muslim country as it tries to manage exit strategies for U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.
NATO did agree to move a number of ships that are now in the Mediterranean closer to Libyan shores to better monitor compliance with a U.N. arms embargo against Libya and provide humanitarian aid to civilians, if needed. The ships include a number that are conducting a naval exercise in the Mediterranean.
The U.S. Navy also has three other vessels in the Mediterranean, including an amphibious assault ship, the USS Kearsarge, with Marines aboard. Yet Gates noted that the alliance was in no position to enforce the arms embargo because it wasn't authorized to by the United Nations.
French officials described their government's move as largely symbolic, but some European countries were angered by France's decision to step out ahead of its partners even as the situation in Libya remained unclear.
"We recognize states rather than groups within states," British Foreign Secretary William Hague admonished. Criticism also came from the Netherlands, which still has an ambassador and embassy officials in Tripoli trying to secure the release of three Dutch marines captured in Sirte, a Gadhafi stronghold.
The European Union did agree on sanctions on five additional financial institutions, while Germany froze billions of dollars in Libyan central bank and government agency assets.
"There is no further cooperation with Gadhafi possible," German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said.
Clinton reminded American lawmakers that Gadhafi has "chemical weapons and other nasty stuff." She also defended the administration's moves to Republicans who complained of a lack of clarity, reflecting with some exasperation that "if this were easy, we would have already done it."
Her visit to the Middle East is designed to press democratic reforms after the rebellions that ousted longtime autocratic rulers in Tunisia and Egypt. She will be the first cabinet-level American official to visit either country since unrest exploded across the Arab world in January, and the trip comes as the U.S. tries to maintain its influence in the region and reassure its Arab allies of continued support amid rapidly changing developments on the ground.