By Michael O'Brien - 03/29/11 12:22 AM EDT
President Obama defended his military intervention in Libya in a Monday night address to the nation that argued it would have been a “betrayal to who we are” not to prevent mass slaughter at the hands of Col. Moammar Gadhafi.
Obama hailed the Libyan effort as a successful, limited military operation carried out as part of an international campaign and reiterated his promise that U.S. ground troops would not be committed to a third war in the Middle East.
"Of course, there is no question that Libya — and the world — will be better off with Gadhafi out of power," Obama said in a nationally televised address from the National Defense University in Washington.
"To be blunt, we went down that road in Iraq," said Obama, who won the presidency in 2008 largely on a campaign that promised to end that war.
"[R]egime change there took eight years, thousands of American and Iraqi lives, and nearly a trillion dollars. That is not something we can afford to repeat in Libya."
The speech represented Obama’s first lengthy address on the Libyan operation since air strikes began more than a week ago. Obama chose to speak to the nation only after the U.S. eased from its leading role in carrying out the attacks. NATO took over the lead in coordinating operations on Sunday.
Obama lashed out at critics in Washington whom he accused of presenting a "false choice" to the public of either intensifying the campaign in Libya or not starting the military attack at all.
"To brush aside America’s responsibility as a leader and — more profoundly — our responsibilities to our fellow human beings under such circumstances would have been a betrayal of who we are," Obama said. "And as president, I refused to wait for the images of slaughter and mass graves before taking action."
At the same time, Obama said, it would be a mistake to broaden the mission, as he said had been called for by some critics.
Monday’s speech is part of a blitz by the White House to win support from the public and Congress for Obama’s actions. After Monday’s address, Obama on Tuesday will sit for interviews with the anchors of NBC, ABC and CBS.
The speech provided Obama with his greatest opportunity yet to make the case to the public for military intervention in Libya. Polls suggest the public is split on whether the campaign is a good idea.
The White House set the stage for the speech on Monday by downplaying any notion that the address would lay out any consistent precedent for U.S. intervention abroad.
“We don’t make decisions about questions like intervention based on consistency or precedent,” said Denis McDonough, the administration's deputy national security adviser, during an off-camera press gaggle. “We make them based on how we can best advance our interests in the region.”
McDonough, who spoke hours before Obama, explained that there were compelling reasons to get involved in Libya, as opposed to Egypt, Bahrain, Yemen and Syria, four other countries in the Middle East where pro-democracy crowds have battled authoritarian governments.
Critics on Obama's left and right alike sought to frame the speech hours before its delivery.
In his first substantive remarks about the Libya mission, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) called the speech “overdue” and warned Obama that the use of U.S. forces must be limited in the absence of authorization from Congress.
“The president made clear that our combat forces’ role in Libya will be limited in scope and duration,” McConnell said in a Senate floor speech. “Tonight, I hope he will reiterate that pledge — or ask Congress before extending the duration or scope of our mission there.”
One of Obama's top critics on the left also demanded that Obama address why he hadn't sought explicit congressional authorization for military operations before launching strikes. Obama “owes the nation an explanation” as to his decision-making process, Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) said in a release. He renewed his threat to offer an amendment to cut off funding for the war.
The complaints from lawmakers about the extent of consultations went noticeably unanswered by Obama in his remarks. He made no overtures toward House and Senate members of either party who argued that he should have sought more explicit authorization for military action, or provided greater detail regarding the mission, before launching strikes.
White House press secretary Jay Carney said that the White House had no objections to lawmakers asking questions, though he strongly rebuffed the notion that the administration hadn’t been fully forthcoming in its briefings of lawmakers.
“Questions are legitimate; they deserve to be answered,” he said. “We have endeavored to answer them.”
Administration officials saw momentum for Libyan rebels as a result of airstrikes, pointing to numerous news reports from the region indicating that rebels had retaken key strategic positions and that forces loyal to Gadhafi had been blocked from delivering attacks against dissidents.
It was the humanitarian aspect that the White House said made its intervention in Libya so unique, and not a basis of precedent.
McDonough emphasized the differences between the situation in Libya and clashes between anti-government demonstrators and ruling governments in other countries in the Middle East.