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.
Obama spoke as one senior American military official said the Persian Gulf nation of Qatar was expected to start flying air patrols over Libya by this weekend, becoming the first member of the Arab League to participate directly in the military mission. Obama and NATO had insisted from the start on Arab support.
With congressional critics growing more vocal, the president defended the wisdom of the operation so far.
"It is in America's national interests to participate ... because no one has a bigger stake in making sure that there are basic rules of the road that are observed, that there is some semblance of order and justice, particularly in a volatile region that's going through great changes," Obama said.
With longtime autocratic governments under pressure elsewhere in the Arab world, the president made clear his decision to dispatch U.S. planes and ships to intervene in Libya did not automatically signal he would do so everywhere.
"That doesn't mean we can solve every problem in the world," he said.
The president also suggested the administration would not need to request funding from Congress for the air operations but would pay for them out of money already approved.
Administration officials briefed lawmakers during the day about costs and other details to date.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, meanwhile, said the administration is getting reports — of questionable credibility — that some in Gadhafi's inner circle may be looking for a way out of the crisis. She said some of them, allegedly acting on the Libyan leader's behalf, have reached out to people in Europe and elsewhere to ask, in effect, "How do we get out of this?"
"Some of it is theater," Clinton said in an interview with ABC's Diane Sawyer. "Some of it is, you know, kind of, shall we say game playing." She added: "A lot of it is just the way he behaves. It's somewhat unpredictable. But some of it we think is exploring. You know, 'What are my options? Where could I go? What could I do?' And we would encourage that."
The Pentagon said two dozen more Tomahawk cruise missiles were launched from U.S. and British submarines late Monday and early Tuesday against Libyan targets, raising the total to 161 aimed at disabling Gadhafi's air defenses.
Adm. Samuel J. Locklear III said Libyan ground troops will be more vulnerable as the coalition grows in size and capability, but he declined to provide details of future targeting. He spoke to reporters at the Pentagon from aboard his command ship in the Mediterranean Sea.
Several members of Congress, including a number from Obama's own party, were increasingly questioning the wisdom of U.S. involvement.
"We began a military action at the same time that we don't have a clear diplomatic policy, or a clear foreign policy when it comes to what's going on in Libya," said Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va., adding that the Obama administration lacks a clear understanding of rebel forces trying to oust Gadhafi, who has ruled for 42 years.
"Do we know what their intentions would be? Would they be able to govern if they were to succeed? And the answer is we don't really know," Webb said.
Associated Press writers Jim Kuhnhenn in El Salvador and Pauline Jelinek, Donna Cassata, Bradley Klapper and Lolita C. Baldor in Washington contributed to this report.