In his remarks to the nation Monday, President Obama needed to navigate a narrow, thorny path in explaining the United States’ involvement in Libya’s internal strife.
He had to persuade a somewhat skeptical American public that intervention was in the national interest, while reassuring viewers that the U.S. military’s role would remain a limited one.
He had to cast the action in terms of protecting Libya’s helpless citizens from the attacks of Moammar Kadafi’s forces, without claiming that Kadafi’s ouster was the goal of the military operation.
And he had to outline, to some degree, a doctrine for use of American power in situations where a clear national threat was not evident.
Those objectives inevitably at times collided Monday in a speech at the National Defense University in Washington, as the president attempted to articulate why American might was so crucial to push back against Kadafi’s forces in Libya, but tempered that aggressive call to arms with a dose of geopolitical reality.
But from the outset, Obama strongly defended the U.S. strikes, saying they had achieved their initial goal.
“We have stopped Kadafi’s deadly advance,” the president said. “The United States of America has done what it said it would do.”
Accused by Republicans such as Sarah Palin of “dithering” on Libya, Obama responded by saying his administration had acted aggressively, with historic speed.
“In just one month, the United States has worked with our international partners to mobilize a broad coalition, secure an international mandate to protect civilians, stop an advancing army, prevent a massacre, and establish a no-fly zone with our allies and partners,” Obama said. “To lend some perspective on how rapidly this military and diplomatic response came together, when people were being brutalized in Bosnia in the 1990s, it took the international community more than a year to intervene with air power to protect civilians.”
While the United Nations’ resolution under which the U.S. and its allies are operating does not call for Kadafi’s ouster, Obama made it vividly clear early in the speech that the four-decade ruler of Libya must depart, casting him as an oppressive dictator with blood on his hands.
Some Democrats in Congress have been pushing for Obama to define Kadafi as more of a direct threat to the U.S. -- and the president complied, implicitly mentioning the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, an attack Kadafi is accused of masterminding.
Kadafi, Obama said, “has denied his people freedom, exploited their wealth, murdered opponents at home and abroad, and terrorized innocent people around the world -- including Americans who were killed by Libyan agents.”
Intervening in Libya, the president said, became part of America’s national interest once it was clear that Kadafi’s forces were poised to attack the rebel-held city of Benghazi, which he likened to an American city.
“The United States and the world faced a choice. Kadafi declared that he would show ‘no mercy’ to his own people. He compared them to rats, and threatened to go door to door to inflict punishment. In the past, we had seen him hang civilians in the streets, and kill over 1,000 people in a single day,” Obama said. “Now, we saw regime forces on the outskirts of the city. We knew that if we waited one more day, Benghazi -- a city nearly the size of Charlotte -- could suffer a massacre that would have reverberated across the region and stained the conscience of the world.”
“It was not in our national interest to let that happen,” he said. “I refused to let that happen.”
Later, the president asserted that the U.S. has “an important strategic interest in preventing Kadafi from overrunning those who oppose him,” saying that the conflict in Libya would spread beyond its borders, endangering democracy movements in neighboring Egypt and Tunisia. “So while I will never minimize the costs involved in military action, I am convinced that a failure to act in Libya would have carried a far greater price for America.”
Having defined the national interest, Obama then reassured the public that the U.S. role would be a restrained one. And he provided little guidance in terms of defining what would constitute success in the region, suggesting that the ultimate resolution of the conflict could remain beyond American control.
“I said that America’s role would be limited; that we would not put ground troops into Libya; that we would focus our unique capabilities on the front end of the operation, and that we would transfer responsibility to our allies and partners. Tonight, we are fulfilling that pledge,” he said.
Obama said that the U.S. could not afford another Iraq war, where “regime change . . . took eight years, thousands of American and Iraqi lives, and nearly a trillion dollars” -- and that it would remain the Libyan people’s responsibility to remove Kadafi,
The president also addressed critics who have argued that the U.S. should not have interjected itself into what some call a civil war. He outlined aspects of a doctrine for action against a repressive regime.
“It is true that America cannot use our military wherever repression occurs. And given the costs and risks of intervention, we must always measure our interests against the need for action. But that cannot be an argument for never acting on behalf of what’s right,” the president said.
In that respect, Obama said, the circumstances involved were somewhat unprecedented.
“We had a unique ability to stop that violence: an international mandate for action, a broad coalition prepared to join us, the support of Arab countries, and a plea for help from the Libyan people themselves. We also had the ability to stop Kadafi’s forces in their tracks without putting American troops on the ground,” he said.
He also seemed to suggest that there are times when the United States must act even if the nation isn’t directly threatened -- something that is likely to draw the ire of those with more conservative views of the use of U.S. military force.
“There will be times, though, when our safety is not directly threatened, but our interests and values are,” the president said.