By John T. Bennett, Erika Niedowski and Sam Youngman - 03/21/11 06:32 PM EDT
President Obama defended the administration's engagement in Libya on Monday, saying it is "very easy to square our military actions and our stated policies" on Col. Moammar Gadhafi's regime.
Speaking to reporters in Chile, Obama said the U.S. has taken the early lead in air and sea strikes, but added that a transition will take place soon that will allow other countries in the international coalition taking the lead.
He repeatedly defended his decision to intervene, saying that when the Libyan leader vowed to show "no mercy" to Libyan rebels, "we can't simply stand by with empty words."
"We have to take some sort of action," Obama said.
The president said that "it is U.S. policy that Gadhafi needs to go" and that sanctions and other policies amount to "a wide range of tools to support that policy."
Earlier in the day, a senior U.S. general stressed Gadhafi is not the target of U.S. and coalition military forces, nor are they trying to oust his regime.
U.S. African Command (AFRICOM) chief Gen. Carter Ham, commander of coalition forces, said during a Pentagon briefing that officials leading a no-fly-zone mission over Libya "don't know much” about Gadhafi's location.
"We have not spent many military resources on that," Ham added.
Repeating an assessment made over the weekend by Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, Ham said there is a chance the coalition campaign could end with the Libyan leader still in power.
But some senior Republicans say there is a disconnect between military and administration officials on the mission’s end goal: whether Gadhafi remains in power or out.
“Are our goals aimed at protecting civilians in Libya or the removal of Moammar Qadaffi from power?" Rep. Buck McKeon (R-Calif.), ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee, asked in a statement Sunday.
"In either case, to what extent and for how long will military resources be utilized?" McKeon asked.
The lack of a goal "risks entrenching the United States in a humanitarian mission whose scope and duration are not known at this point and cannot be controlled by us."
Speaking on CBS's “Face the Nation,” Sen. Dick Lugar (R-Ind.), ranking member of the Foreign Relations Committee, said it seems regime change is in store for Libya. But he questioned how that objective would be achieved with the limited mission undertaken by the U.S. military.
"How do you do that? The president has been very clear on that. No ground troops. No American boots on the ground," Lugar said.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) put it this way: "Isolate, strangle and replace this man. That should be our goal," he told “Fox News Sunday.”
The thrust of the U.S.-led mission so far has been "to protect civilians" and destroy Gadhafi's air-defense systems and command-and-control facilities, Ham said. That is the mandate of the United Nations Security Council resolution approved last week.
The latter priority led the coalition to target part of Gadhafi's compound in Tripoli.
The Associated Press reported that half of the three-story administration building had been knocked down. Gadhafi’s whereabouts were not immediately known, but several hundred of his supporters were said to be in the compound, apparently acting as human shields. British military officials said they had called off another strike over fears of hitting civilians.
The sprawling compound — which Ham said is about 700 meters by 1,000 meters — houses everything from lodging quarters to a mess hall to air defense systems to a key command-and-control facility, the general said.
By striking that site, mission commanders think they have significantly hindered the ability of Gadhafi and top aides to direct loyalist and military troops, Ham told reporters.
"We believe there is a very, very direct relationship between that target and our mission" of shielding civilians, he added.
That strike, he said, was carried out "with tremendous precision."
Meanwhile, questions continued to mount over the scope and duration of U.S. involvement in Libya.
House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) over the weekend pressured Obama to offer a clearer explanation on what the U.S. hopes to accomplish in Libya — and how the coalition will accomplish it.
While saying the U.S. has a “moral obligation” to back those seeking “freedom from oppression,” Boehner said the president must “better explain what America's role is in achieving that mission, and make clear how it will be accomplished.”
"Before any further military commitments are made, the administration must do a better job of communicating to the American people and to Congress about our mission in Libya and how it will be achieved,” Boehner said.
Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.) contended Monday that the president’s failure to formally consult Congress had been “improper.”
"I am disappointed that the president consulted with the United Nations and didn't seek resolution for the use of force from the Congress," Pence said on "The Cisco Cotto Show," a Chicago-based radio program.
"President [Bush], both with regards to Afghanistan and Iraq, not only went to the United Nations but he also came to the Congress, requested and then was given a resolution authorizing the use of force,” said Pence. “President Obama failed to do that and I think that was improper."
Some Democrats have also said Obama should have consulted Congress.
At a press conference in Chile Monday, Obama did not wade into the issue of congressional
support, but he sent an afternoon letter to Boehner and Sen. Daniel Iouye (D-Hawaii), the president pro tem of the Seante, saying he ordered strikes on Libya under his constitutional authority as commander-in-chief.
Senior administration officials also defended Obama from that criticism. Tom Donilon, the president's national security adviser, said on Air Force One that the mission is “limited” in terms of scope, duration and task, and “does fall in the president’s authorities.”
While en route to Chile, Obama participated in a secure hourlong call on the situation with top U.S. officials, including Ham, Mullen, Donilon, Clinton, Defense Secretary Robert Gates and White House Chief of Staff William Daley, according to a pool report.
In the Pentagon briefing, Ham said several times that under the U.N. resolution endorsing a no-fly zone, coalition troops are not supporting rebel units in any way — including providing air strikes to support those forces' offensive moves against Gadhafi's troops.
Obama administration and U.S. military officials continue to say they intend for American forces and commanders to soon hand over control of the U.N.-backed mission to a "coalition command."
Ham declined to offer a time frame for when that might occur, saying no decision has been made on how the coalition organization will be set up.
The coalition launched 60 combat sorties Sunday, with about half carried out by American planes.
On Monday, 70 sorties were flown, and "an overwhelming percentage" were completed by non-U.S. warplanes, Ham said.
That percentage is expected to grow as other nations' aircraft arrive in the region.
While some U.S. lawmakers say they are concerned the mission may devolve into a protracted ground operation, Ham said there currently are "no [U.S.] military boots on the ground" inside Libya.
The AFRICOM chief also revealed that the goal is to extend the no-fly zone across the northern coastal region of Libya, where the bulk of Libya's offensive military aircraft are based, according to lawmakers and defense analysts.
Finally, fears that Gadhafi will seek to carry out terrorist attacks on American or Western targets in retaliation are "very, very legitimate," Ham said.
Though commanders have yet to see evidence Gadhafi is planning such attacks, "we have to operate under the assumption he would like to see that happen," Ham said.
What's more, coalition officials are mindful the situation could allow al Qaeda to "establish — or re-establish — a foothold" there, Ham said.
—Michael O'Brien, Jamie Klatell and Josiah Ryan contributed to this report.
—This post was last updated at 3:43 p.m.