By Dan Robinson
Explaining his decision to authorize the use of U.S. military force as part of international operations in Libya, President Barack Obama said Monday night that the United States must act when its interests and values are threatened. The president ruled out seeking regime change in Libya through military means, but he said the United States and other nations will continue to seek Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi’s departure.
The president chose the National Defense University here in Washington for a major address on why he made the decisions he did on Libya, the progress made so far and what he called its significance for the use of America’s military power and broader leadership.
The president said the United States and its coalition partners intervened to stop “brutal repression” and a massacre of civilians by forces loyal to Moammar Gadhafi, as well as a looming humanitarian crisis.
“We were faced with the prospect of violence on a horrific scale. 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 Gadhafi’s forces in their tracks without putting American troops on the ground,” he said.
In one month, Mr. Obama said, the United States worked with international partners to mobilize a broad coalition, secure an international mandate to protect civilians, and establish a no-fly zone. He said he kept his pledge to keep the U.S. role limited and not put American troops on the ground.
President Obama did not directly address criticism from members of Congress about the degree to which he consulted lawmakers on the Libyan operation. He did speak about a debate in Washington, which he said involved a false choice when it comes to Libya.
“Some question why America should intervene at all – even in limited ways – in this distant land. They argue that there are many places in the world where innocent civilians face brutal violence at the hands of their government, and America should not be expected to police the world – particularly when we have so many pressing concerns here at home. 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,” he said.
Earlier, Republican Senator Mitch McConnell said the president had articulated “a wider political objective of regime change in Libya” that does not match the stated objective of military intervention, and posed this question:
“What is the role of our military and military alliance in providing support to an opposition that we are only now beginning to understand,” he said.
In his address, President Obama said that although there is no question Libya and the world would be better off with Moammar Gadhafi out of power, he ruled out seeking regime change by military means.
“If we tried to overthrow Gadhafi by force, our coalition would splinter. We would likely have to put U.S. troops on the ground or risk killing many civilians from the air. The dangers faced by our men and women in uniform would be far greater. So would the costs, and our share of the responsibility for what comes next,” he said.
The president said the United States had “gone down that road” in Iraq at a cost of thousands of American and Iraqi lives, and nearly $1 trillion, adding “that is not something we can afford to repeat in Libya.”
Mr. Obama spoke as NATO prepares to formally assume command of the Libyan operation, as the bulk of U.S. involvement winds down. the president’s speech also came on the eve of a crucial meeting in London of the United States and other NATO members, the Arab League and Libyan opposition representatives.
The White House announced that President Obama had spoken earlier with French President Nicolas Sarkozy, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and British Prime Minister David Cameron.
A statement said they agreed that Mr. Gadhafi had “lost any legitimacy to rule and should leave power” and that the Libyan people should determine their own political future.
President Obama used his address to explain why he considered military action in Libya important against the backdrop of momentous changes in North Africa and in the Middle East.
“Democratic impulses that are dawning across the region would be eclipsed by the darkest form of dictatorship as repressive leaders concluded that violence is the best strategy to cling to power. The writ of the U.N. Security Council would have been shown to be little more than empty words, crippling its future credibility to uphold global peace and security. 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,” he said.
Saying that history is on the move in the Middle East and North Africa, Mr. Obama added that the United States cannot dictate the pace and scope of change, but must stand alongside those who believe in the core principles of universal rights and free expression.
The United States, he said, should not be afraid to act when its safety is not directly threatened but its interests and values are – including preventing genocide, keeping the peace and ensuring regional security. But, he said, the burden of action should not be America’s alone.
In initial reaction on Capitol Hill, Republican Senator John McCain said the president adequately explained reasons for intervention in Libya. But McCain questioned Mr. Obama’s remarks on regime change.
Democratic Representative Steny Hoyer said it is essential that Mr. Obama continue to inform and consult with Congress as long as American troops remain part of the Libya mission.