WASHINGTON -- Fearing a stalemate in Libya, three members of the Senate Armed Services Committee want immediate military aid for the rebels fighting Moammar Gadhafi's forces, stepped up NATO airstrikes and more direct U.S. involvement.
They said they interpreted the U.N. Security Council resolution -- authorizing military action to protect Libyan civilians and imposing a no-fly zone -- as also allowing moves necessary to drive Gadhafi from power.
"I think it gives justification if NATO decides it wants to, for going directly after Gadhafi," said Sen. Joe Lieberman, an independent from Connecticut. "I can't think of anything that would protect the civilian population of Libya more than the removal of Moammar Gadhafi."
A protracted stalemate and a divided Libya, with Gadhafi and the opposition controlling different parts, could open the door to the al-Qaida terrorist network, said Arizona Sen. John McCain, who visited a rebel stronghold this past week. He described the opposition in Benghazi as "this very legitimate government."
Even with more arms for the rebels, said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., there isn't enough momentum for them to reach Tripoli, the capital, and there isn't "deep support" for Gadhafi's continued rule.
"So my recommendation to NATO and the administration is to cut the head of the snake off, go to Tripoli, start bombing Gadhafi's inner circle, their compounds, their military headquarters," he said.
"The way to get Gadhafi to leave is have his inner circle break and turn on him. And that's going to take a sustained effort through an air campaign," Graham said.
While saying it's good to have international coalitions and U.N. involvement, "the goal is to get rid of Gadhafi," he argued.
"The people around Gadhafi need to wake up every day wondering, 'Will this be my last?' The military commanders in Tripoli supporting Gadhafi should be pounded," Graham said. "So I would not let the U.N. mandate stop what is the right thing to do. You cannot protect the Libyan people if Gadhafi stays. You cannot protect our vital national security interests if Gadhafi stays."
He urged actions that are in the best interests of the U.S., the Libyan people and the world, without being hamstrung by U.N. politics.
"You can't let the Russians and the Chinese veto the freedom agenda. So any time you go to the United Nations Security Council, you run into the Russians and the Chinese. These are quasi-dictatorships, so I wouldn't be locked down by the U.N. mandate," Graham said.
McCain was not as enthusiastic about targeting Gadhafi, saying "we have tried those things in the past with other dictators, and it's a little harder than you think it is." Gadhafi is elusive and "a great survivor, and there's the potential for civilian casualties, which could turn the Libyan people against the U.S., he said.
"The point is that we can't count on taking Gadhafi out. What we can count on is a trained, equipped, well-supported liberation forces which can either force Gadhafi out or obtain victory and send him to an international criminal court," said McCain, the top Republican on the Senate committee.
"My emphasis is on winning the battle on the ground, not taking a chance on taking him out with a lucky air strike."
Lieberman and McCain want increased use of U.S. precision weapons and American air power returned to the mission.
"We need our allies. I appreciate that they've come in. But we're the heart of NATO and it's not exactly as if we took the ball and gave it to NATO," Lieberman said. "We're still NATO, and I think some of our assets that we removed ... ought to go back into the fight."
He said that "every time we pull back, it says to Gadhafi that he can tough this out. And I want him to feel that we're just going to squeeze and squeeze until he decides it is time to go because that's the only end that will be meaningful here."
Lieberman and McCain appeared on CNN's "State of the Union" broadcast on Sunday; Graham's remarks, aired on the same show, were taped on Friday.