The Obama administration sent mixed signals on its policy toward Libya Thursday. In testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee, National Intelligence Director James Clapper indicated that Libyan ruler Moammar Gaddafi was likely to defeat resistance forces. But hours later, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in congressional testimony that Washington seeks Gaddafi's ouster and said she will meet with unidentified members of the Libyan opposition.
"We are standing with the Libyan people as they brave bombs and bullets to demand that Gaddafi must go – now," she told the House Appropriations Committee. Clinton said the meetings would occur next week, when she visits France, Egypt and Tunisia.
Earlier in the day, Clapper delivered a very different kind of message. Rebels are unlikely to drive Gaddafi from power, he said, and Washington needs to take seriously the possibility that he will win. "Gaddafi is in this for the long haul," Clapper said.
"I think over time, over the longer term, that the regime will prevail," he told the Senate panel, pointing to the Gaddafi's forces' superior weaponry and logistical capabilities. Alternatively, it is possible that the country could split into two or three parts or "you could end up with a Somalia-like situation," Clapper said.
Neither outcome would be a good one for the United States, countered Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz. and Joseph Lieberman, I-Conn. It would "signal to rulers across the region that the best way to maintain power in the face of peaceful demands is through swift and merciless violence," McCain said. "Perhaps the greater concern for us all should be what it would mean for America's credibility and moral standing if a tyrant were allowed to massacre Arabs and Muslims in Libya and we watched it happen."
Lieberman said the United States should consider establishing a no-fly zone over Libya and sharing intelligence with anti-Gaddafi forces.
In recent days, the rebels' position has grown increasingly precarious. On Thursday, Gaddafi's forces recaptured the refinery town of Ras Lanuf after a withering attack from air, land and sea – illustrating once again the dictator's willingness to kill his own people in order to stay in power. In Ras Lanuf, Gaddafi's forces launched an airstrike against a hospital and a mosque.
"It's tough these days," said Mohammed al-Houni, a 25-year-old fighter for the opposition forces. "There is no comparison between our weapons and theirs. They're trained, they're organized … We're not any army. We're the people, and even if we had weapons, we wouldn't even know how to use them."
Meanwhile, in Zawiyah, located just west of Tripoli, Gaddafi's forces released three BBC journalists abducted over the weekend. The three, who work for the news agency's Arabic-language service, were beaten and subject to mock executions. They were taken to a military barracks where they saw other prisoners in much worse condition, who appeared to have been tortured. Many had broken ribs and were hooded and handcuffed.
The dictator's son, Saif al-Islam, vowed to crush the opposition and warned NATO against intervening in Libya. If NATO wants to support the opposition "you are going to lose," he said in an interview broadcast on Sky News and BBC Television. "We are not afraid of the American fleet, NATO, France, Europe."