WASHINGTON — As the air war in Libya achieves some of its early objectives, such as grounding Moammar Gadhafi's air force, the Obama administration is looking for a quick exit — at least from a front-line role in an international operation that has yet to gain the robust participation of Arab nations that Washington wanted.
Civilians in major cities like Misrata are still bearing the burden of clashes with pro-Gadhafi forces that are showing little sign of heeding international demands that they retreat for peace. That is raising the prospect of stalemate and doubt about whether the Libyan leader can be defeated outright.
Obama was returning to Washington on Wednesday a few hours earlier than planned. In El Salvador on Tuesday he painted an optimistic picture of the international military operation and said he had "absolutely no doubt" that control could be shifted from the U.S. to other coalition members within days.
"When this transition takes place, it is not going to be our planes that are maintaining the no-fly zone," the president said at a news conference. "It is not going to be our ships that are necessarily enforcing the arms embargo. That's precisely what the other nations are going to do."
The most obvious candidate to take control — the NATO military alliance, which also happens to be led by the U.S. — has yet to sort out a political agreement to do so. Obama said NATO was meeting to "work out some of the mechanisms."
Despite the cost — not only in effort, resources and potential casualties, but also in taxpayer dollars — Obama said he believes the American public is supportive of such a mission.
"This is something that we can build into our budget. And we're confident that not only can the goals be achieved, but at the end of the day the American people are going to feel satisfied that lives were saved and people were helped," he said.