WASHINGTON -- Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton's trip to the turbulent Middle East highlights the Obama administration's deep concern over developments in Libya and fear that the unrest roiling the Arab world may not produce the changes demanded by increasingly vocal and emboldened anti-government protesters.
Failure to meet those demands for greater economic, political and social freedoms could spark more chaos and complicate the U.S. position in one of the world's most critical regions.
Clinton left Washington on Sunday for Paris; later in the week, she'll hold the first Cabinet-level U.S. talks with the Libyan opposition and discussions on democratic reform with transitional leaders in post-revolt Egypt and Tunisia.
With Libya embroiled in near civil war and Washington and its NATO allies divided on military intervention, Clinton will discuss options with European officials on Monday in Paris, where she also plans to see foes of Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi to assess their capabilities and intentions.
The meeting comes as rebels step up calls for the imposition of no-fly zone to deter Qaddafi loyalists from air strikes that have helped the regime retake key opposition-held areas.
Despite those appeals and demands from some in Congress to support the rebels with air cover and weapons, President Obama and his top national security aides have so far demurred, fearing it would further strain America's already stretched military and entangle the U.S. in a conflict that could be perceived as meddling. The administration has been insistent that any intervention be authorized by the United Nations with the consent of the Arab League and other groups.
The Arab League on Saturday endorsed a no-fly zone, saying in surprisingly aggressive language that the Libyan government had "lost its sovereignty" and asked the United Nations to "shoulder its responsibility" and impose the restriction. The White House reacted cautiously in a statement that did not mention a no-fly zone but lauded the unity of the international community in preparing "for all contingencies."
"We welcome this important step by the Arab League, which strengthens the international pressure on Qaddafi and support for the Libyan people," the White House said.
Obama on Friday made it clear that the bar for American military intervention would be high.
"Anytime I send United States forces into a potentially hostile situation, there are risks involved and there are consequences. And it is my job as president to make sure that we have considered all those risks," he told reporters. "It's also important from a political perspective to, as much as possible, maintain the strong international coalition that we have right now."
The debate over the wisdom of a no-fly zone has transcended traditional political divisions in Washington with lawmakers from both parties on the each side. Even families have been split.
Clinton herself has been very cautious on the subject while her husband, former President Bill Clinton, has heartily endorsed the move.
Europe has been more forceful. France and Britain are drafting a U.N. Security Council resolution that would authorize a no-fly zone, and France has recognized Libya's anti-Qaddafi interim governing council, something the U.S. has yet to do, although it has severed ties with the Libyan embassy in Washington. The U.S. has held back because the council's composition and aims largely remain a mystery to American officials.
Underscoring that quandary, it was not entirely clear which Libyan opposition leaders Clinton would be seeing in Paris or if she would hold further meetings with Qaddafi opponents in Cairo or Tunis. U.S. ambassador to Libya Gene Cretz, who has been in Washington since early January, has been leading the administration's effort to reach out to the opposition but his contacts have not yet produced a clear picture of the council or the extent of its backing.
The U.S. approach to the council -- and a decision on whether to recognize it as Libya's legitimate government -- may well depend on Clinton's meetings. The administration is expected to appoint a dedicated representative in the coming days to deal with the opposition.
Meanwhile, contingency planning continues apace. The Pentagon has ordered warships into the Mediterranean in case they are needed for Libya-related operations ranging from humanitarian assistance to possible military action. There are now at least five major U.S. warships in the Mediterranean, including the USS Kearsarge with a contingent of U.S. Marines on board.
From Paris, Clinton travels to Cairo and Tunis, where she'll urge transitional Egyptian and Tunisian leaders to heed demands for change that fueled popular uprisings that ousted longtime autocratic rulers. On her last Mideast trip, in January as unrest gripped Tunisia, Clinton delivered a stark warning to Arab governments that they risked "sinking into the sand" if they did not address the demands their peoples.
A day later, Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali fled into exile, emboldening protesters in other nations, notably Egypt where mass demonstrations a month later forced President Hosni Mubarak to step down.
Clinton is particularly keen to ensure that their successors follow through on meeting the aspirations of the demonstrators and, in particular, ensure respect for human rights. In both Cairo and Tunis, she will speak with activists to encourage them to continue to make their voices heard but also to be patient as the transitions pick up steam.
Violence appeared to be growing elsewhere in the region. In Yemen, at least 100 people were wounded Sunday when police fired bullets and tear gas at protesters in Sanaa. The government's tactics have turned increasingly violent in the weeks since demonstrators began calling for the resignation of Yemen's longtime leader, President Ali Abdullah Saleh.
Anti-government protests in Bahrain turned more disruptive during the weekend. Thousands of demonstrators cut off the island kingdom's financial center and drove back police, and clashes between those favoring the ruling minority Sunnis and those backing the majority Shiites raised fears of open sectarian conflict.
In a statement Sunday from the White House, press secretary Jay Carney said the U.S. strongly condemned the violence erupting in Yemen and Bahrain and urged their governments to show restraint and to respect "the universal rights of their people."