WASHINGTON // With little ability to apply pressure on Libya, the US has been forced to watch events mostly from the sidelines.
Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, on Monday condemned the violence, calling the bloodshed "unacceptable" and urging the Libyan government to "respect the universal rights of the people, including the right to free expression and assembly".
The language was similar to that used by US officials to respond to the protests in Tunisia and Egypt. But those two countries were both led by long-time US allies. Muammar Qaddafi, the Libyan leader, was long a pariah in Washington and only recently came in from the diplomatic cold.
As a result, the US has had fewer relations with Tripoli than European countries, and American appeals are likely to have little influence with Col Qaddafi. Mrs Clinton said the US was working with other countries to pressure the Libyan government, but where in Egypt, as in Bahrain, close military ties provided a crucial diplomatic backchannel for Washington, no such leverage exists with Libya.
There has been, so far, no direct contact between Washington and the Libyan government, and the US may well take a backseat to Europe, particularly Italy, in any diplomatic efforts to end the violence. There is not even a US ambassador in the country. Gene Gretz, the US ambassador, was called back to Washington after diplomatic cables revealed by Wikileaks saw him describe Col Qaddafi's eccentricities in some detail, including the Libyan leader's predilection for a "voluptuous Ukrainian" nurse.
"The US-Libyan relationship is rather thin," said Michelle Dunne, senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a former Middle East specialist with the US State Department. "I don't see this as a situation in which the US could have a direct effect on Libyan leaders by communicating with them."
The US could play a role within the international community to marshal a response, Ms Dunne said, but international measures take time and will do little to influence the immediate situation.
"I don't see any calls, no matter how strong they are from outside leaders, having much of an effect. The Libyan leadership is fighting, probably literally, for its survival."
But the spreading of unrest to yet another Arab country will be watched with concern in Washington, both for its implications in the region as well as its direct consequences for US interests, not least the economy.
US stock index futures tumbled yesterday as the revolt in Libya drove investors away from risky assets and prompted a spike in crude oil prices.
Meanwhile, Libya's ambassador to the United States said yesterday that he no longer represents his country's "dictatorship regime" and called on Col Qaddafi to depart.
"I resign from serving the current dictatorship regime. But I will never resign from serving our people until their voices reach the whole world, until their goals are achieved," Ali Aujali said in an interview on ABC television. "I am calling for him to go and leave our people alone."
In New York, the Libyan delegation to the United Nations also defected. The deputy ambassador and more than a dozen members of the Libyan mission to the United Nations called upon Col Qaddafi to step down and leave the country.
"He has to leave as soon as possible," said the deputy ambassador, Ibrahim Dabbashi. "He has to stop killing the Libyan people."
Mr Dabbashi urged other nations to join in that request, saying he feared there could be a massacre in Tripoli and calling on "African nations" to stop sending what he called "mercenaries" to fight on behalf of Col Qaddafi's government.
The US state department has issued a travel warning for the country, only recently opened to western tourism, and Washington has ordered all nonessential personnel and family members at its embassy to leave the country.