President Obama said Tuesday that he hadn't ruled out providing arms to rebels in Libya to help them topple Col. Moammar Gadhafi.
The president said he'd neither decided on nor ruled out providing arms to rebels as part of U.S. assistance in efforts to overthrow Gadhafi short of more direct American military intervention.
"It's fair to say that if we wanted to get weapons into Libya, we probably could," Obama told ABC.
Gadhafi's forces had been held in abeyance by military strikes, the president said, and the administration was trying to gauge whether the Libyan leader's forces could be "sufficiently degraded" to the point where it was unnecessary to arm the rebels.
"But we're not taking anything off the table at this point," Obama said. "Our primary military goal is to protect civilian populations and to set up the no-fly zone. Our primary strategic goal is for Gadhafi to step down so that the Libyan people have an opportunity to live a decent life."
Providing arms to the rebels could carry some political controversy, especially as questions swirl about the exact tenor of the opposition, particularly whether al Qaeda has joined rebel efforts in Libya. Some lawmakers have expressed concern about al Qaeda factions within the opposition, and there could be some pause before providing arms to those suspected of being affiliated with anti-American groups.
"There are al Qaeda elements. But we need to pour it on, we need to stay behind the opposition forces, give them the military support just like we're doing now," Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said Monday night on CNN. "But when this is over and Gadhafi leaves, it would be a huge mistake not to help the Libyan people ... And if there are al Qaeda elements in that country, we will help the Libyan people take care of them."
Obama said in an interview with CBS that all of the Libyan dissidents with whom U.S. officials have met have been "fully vetted," but that that doesn't mean there might not be some elements within the faction opposed to U.S. interests.