A decision by President Obama and NATO to use its militaries to aid rebels in Libya would have the alliance siding with factions that it does not fully understand and not knowing what type of government they would bring to Tripoli.
Administration officials cannot rule out that some type of Islamic dictatorship eventually might replace Moammar Gadhafi and turn anti-American, as Iran's mullah-run regime did.
"We are doing an aggressive outreach to a broad range of people who can help us understand what is happening within Libya and how the opposition is organizing itself," State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley told The Washington Times. "Some clarity is emerging, but there is still a lot we do not know."
David Mack, who spent his diplomatic career in the Middle East, including Libya when Col. Gadhafi came to power, said he, too, lacks a full understanding of who the U.S. would be aiding.
"I spent three years in Libya — two years in Benghazi — and I've been following Libyan matters since September 1969, when I arrived there, and I would have to say at this point there are a lot of unknowns out there," said Mr. Mack, who was ambassador to the United Arab Emirates.
"I think the Obama administration would be very prudent to exercise real due diligence in finding out, first of all, who these people are and who's in charge, if anybody is," he said. "It seems to me there are a lot of disparate elements that are jockeying.
"We're being asked for some very significant support both political and material, and you don't likely give that kind of support," Mr. Mack added. "You need to know who you are actually supporting in terms of their identities. You need to know what policies they might espouse in the future."
The opposition at this point is a mix of former Gadhafi aides, led by former Justice Minister Mustafa Abdel Jalil, and disaffected military officers and tribes that long have had grievances with the regime.
Some of the factions have set up a political arm, the National Libyan Council. Asks Mr. Mack: "What are their positions? What do they favor? What do they believe?"
Some European countries are urging Mr. Obama to approve a no-fly zone over Libya to prevent Col. Gadhafi's fighters from bombing rebel strongholds. There also is talk of arming the anti-Gadhafi forces and sending in military advisers.
In its quest to better understand the rebel movement, Mr. Crowley said, the State Department is talking with Libyan Americans and international businessmen who have inside contacts. The effort is led by Gene Cretz, the U.S. ambassador, and his staff, who have left Tripoli.
"We have a ways to go before we have a full understanding of events," Mr. Crowley said.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, when pressed by lawmakers last week to define the rebel movement, could not.
"We are actively reaching out, for example, to Libyans who are working to bring down the Gadhafi regime," Mrs. Clinton said. "We only set up our embassy in 2009. We did not have relations, as you know, for many years with Libya. We are working to understand who is legitimate, who is not.
"But it is premature, in our opinion, to recognize one group or another," she said. "We have to keep our focus at this point on helping the Libyan people."
Mrs. Clinton said a decision on a no-fly zone, which would require the deployment of hundreds of aircraft and the repositioning of at least one Navy carrier, was a long way off.
An administration official said the U.S. would participate only if NATO approves the operation and other countries' air forces participate.
"Most of the killing that go on in these types of situations is not from aircraft," Mr. Mack said. "I don't think there have been that many Libyans who have been killed from the air so far."
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