Sen. McCain calls for immediate no-fly zone over Libya's skies

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) on Monday called for the Obama administration to “immediately” establish a no-fly zone over Libya to aid rebel forces, saying unrest there is a “test” for Washington's promotion of democracy in the Middle East.

“It is long past time for the president to answer ... calls for international leadership,” McCain said in comments on the Senate floor. He noted the Arab League, Gulf Cooperation Council, France and the U.K. have endorsed seizing control of Libyan skies.

“A no-fly zone was never going to be the decisive action that tipped the balance against [Libyan President Moammar Gadhafi], even when Senator Lieberman and I called for it nearly three weeks ago,” McCain said. “But it remains the case that a no-fly zone would take one of Gadhafi’s most lethal tools off the table, and thereby boost the confidence of Libya’s opposition.”

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The Senate Armed Services Committee’s ranking member said fighting between regime-backed forces and poorly armed rebels is “not a fair fight.”

"Up against a better-equipped foe and with Gadhafi’s forces controlling more and more turf, McCain said: “Now the hour is growing dark.”

“It is Libyans themselves who want to do the fighting against Gadhafi, but they want it to be a fair fight,” McCain said. “So should we.”

McCain’s remarks came as he and Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) introduced a resolution that would, if approved by the chamber, place the Senate in favor of a U.S.-led no-fly zone mission.

Administration and Pentagon officials have said a no-fly zone would be operationally complicated and expensive. The Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, a defense-focused think tank, last week estimated the mission could cost up to $300 million a week -- or around $15 billion.

McCain and other no-fly zone proponents in Congress say the situation in Libya is more important than dollars and cents.

“Our window of opportunity to support the Libyan people is closing quickly,” the veteran senator said. “And this country has a choice to make: Are we going to take action to support the people of Libya in their fight for freedom? Or are we going to stand by, doing more than nothing but less than enough, to achieve our stated goal of [Gadhafi] leaving power?”

McCain said Washington must put its actions where its rhetoric has been.

“We all say that we support the universal rights of the Arabs and Muslims in countries across the Middle East and North Africa, who are inspiring us all in their quest for greater freedom, opportunity, and justice,” he said. “But Libya is the real test.  It is the test of whether we will provide our support not just when it is easy but when it is difficult – when it requires more of us than just speeches and expressions of solidarity.”

Opting to not force Gadhafi from power would signal to other regimes in the Middle East “that force is the way to respond to peaceful demands for a better life.”

During a Friday press conference, Obama said the U.S. and its allies continued to “tighten the noose” around Gadhafi and his regime.

The president said setting up a no-fly zone in Libya remains under consideration, adding the U.S. is consulting with Arab and African nations about such a move.

Obama repeated several times that “it is in the interests of the United States” that Gadhafi leaves power. However, the president would not commit to ensuring that happens.

Sam Youngman contributed to this story.