SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador — As a U.S. warplane crashed in Libya Tuesday, President Barack Obama assured Americans and the world that the U.S. would quickly cede the skies and the military campaign against Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi to allies.
Facing questions at home about his goals in Libya, Obama stressed that his policy in Libya shouldn't be seen as a broad doctrine for the use of U.S. force against any tyrant. It "doesn't mean that we can solve every problem in the world," he said.
"We will continue to support the efforts to protect the Libyan people, but we will not be leading them," Obama said in El Salvador, where he was about to wrap up a three-country visit to Latin America.
"We came in up front fairly heavily, fairly substantially, at considerable risk to our military personnel," he added. "And when this transition (to allies) takes place, it is not going to be our planes that are maintaining the no fly zone. It is not going to be our ships that are necessarily involved in enforcing the arms embargo. That is precisely what the other coalition partners are going to do."
Never miss a local story.
Obama spoke hours after the pilots of a U.S. F-15E Strike Eagle ejected safely when their plane experienced mechanical problems and crashed in a wheat field about 25 miles east of Benghazi in an area controlled by anti-Gadhafi forces.
One pilot was greeted with hugs from locals. A steady stream of locals walked through the wheat fields and gathered around the crash site, at times bringing their children, and photographing the wreckage. Some carried a free Libya flag. Many spoke of their gratitude for U.S. intervention and were fascinated by the wreckage. At the sight of a Westerner, some spoke the little English they knew, offering thanks. A few carried away pieces of the wreckage.
Obama said that conditions in Libya demanded action — to stop a humanitarian disaster and to signal through the tinderbox region that brutal oppression of anti-government demonstrators wouldn't be tolerated. Also, he noted that Arab countries and the United Nations also backed allied military action to stop Gadhafi from further attacks on is own people.
"The American people and the United States have an interest first of all in making sure that where a brutal dictator is threatening his people and saying he will show no mercy and go door to door hunting people down, and we have the capacity under international sanction to do something about that, I think it's in America's national interest to do something about it," he said.
Moreover, he said, the violence in Libya threatened to send as many as 1 million Libyans fleeing the country into neighboring Tunisia and Egypt, threatening "chaos" in countries that have recently made peaceful transitions on the apparent path to democracy.
"Not only do we have a humanitarian interest," Obama said, "but we also have a very practical interest in making sure that the changes sweeping through that region are occurring in a peaceful, nonviolent fashion."
How the U.S. will cede authority over the allied mission wasn't clear Tuesday, but aides said it was likely to rely on the command structure of the NATO alliance.
Obama spoke about the command of the force by phone Tuesday with French President Nicolas Sarkozy and British Prime Minister David Cameron.
"There's agreement that NATO has certain capabilities that are very important in terms of facilitating command and control," White House spokesman Ben Rhodes told reporters Tuesday.
"There is a coalition, of course, that is broader than NATO, so this is not simply a NATO operation. But, again, I think the agreement is that there are specific capabilities within NATO that would be important . . . to support the command and control of a no-fly zone."
The coalition against Gadhafi's forces is led by NATO allies France and Britain, and includes non-NATO countries such as Qatar. Obama also spoke Tuesday with the Emir of Qatar, aides said.
In an interview with ABC News, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the U.S. has evidence that individuals around Gadhafi are reaching out for ways to get out of the crisis.
"We've heard about other people close to him reaching out to people that they know around the world — Africa, the Middle East, Europe, North America, beyond — saying what do we do? How do we get out of this? What happens next?" Clinton said.
"Some of it is theater. Some of it is, you know, kind of, shall we say game playing," she cautioned. "But some of it, we think, is exploring. You know, what are my options, where could I go, what could I do. And we would encourage that."
Also Tuesday, the Treasury Department tightened the noose on the Libyan economy, following up on an earlier freezing of assets linked to Gadhafi's family. The agency identified 14 companies owned by Libya's National Oil Corporation that are subject to U.S. sanctions. The practical effect of the action is to blacklist these firms in the global marketplace.
"The Libyan National Oil Corporation has been a primary funding source for the Gadhafi regime," Adam J. Szubin, the director of the Office of Foreign Assets Control, said in a statement. "Consistent with U.N. Security Council Resolution 1973, all governments should block the National Oil Corporation's assets and ensure that Gadhafi cannot use this network of companies to support his activities."
Szubin added that the Treasury Department will monitor the oil operations in Libya and if the identified companies come under a different ownership or control structure, these subsidiaries or facilities could be removed from the blacklisting.
That apparently amounts to a pledge that if rebels can maintain control of oil production in the east and reconstitute existing companies, they could be treated as the legitimate operators entitled to oil revenue.
(Thomma reported from Washington, Johnson from Sal Salvador, Youssef from Libya. Warren P. Strobel and Kevin G. Hall in Washington contributed to this article.)
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY
For more news from the Middle East, visit McClatchy's Middle East page.