Vigorously defending the first war launched on his watch, President Barack Obama declared that the United States intervened in Libya to prevent a slaughter of civilians that would have stained the world's conscience. Yet he ruled out targeting Moammar Gaddafi, warning that trying to oust the Libyan leader militarily would be a mistake as costly as the war in Iraq.
Obama announced that NATO would take command over the entire Libya operation on Wednesday, keeping his pledge to get the US out of the lead fast - but offering no estimate on when the conflict might end and no details about its costs despite demands for those answers from lawmakers.
In his nationally televised speech Monday night, Obama declined to label the US-led military campaign as a "war," but made an expansive case for why he believed it was in the national interest of the United States and its allies to use force.
In blunt terms, Obama said the US-led response had stopped Gaddafi's advances and halted a slaughter that could have shaken the stability of an entire region.
Obama cast the intervention in Libya as imperative to keep Gaddafi from killing those rebelling against him and to prevent a refugee crisis that would drive Libyans into Egypt and Tunisia, two countries emerging from their own uprisings.
"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. He spoke to a respectful audience of military members and diplomats at the National Defense University not far from the White House.
"Some nations may be able to turn a blind eye to atrocities in other countries. The United States of America is different," Obama said. "And as president, I refused to wait for the images of slaughter and mass graves before taking action."
Obama planned to turn to network TV news for interviews on Libya on Tuesday. Obama will be in New York on Tuesday when he sits down with the evening news anchors for NBC, CBS and ABC for segments that will allow him to restate his case for millions of viewers.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, meanwhile, was heading to London on Tuesday for a major international conference to coordinate strategy on Libya's political future.
In Libya, rebel forces bore down Monday on Gaddafi's hometown of Sirte with the help of airstrikes by the US-led forces. His speech was his most aggressive attempt to answer the questions mounting from Republican critics, his own party and war-weary Americans - chiefly, why the US was immersed in war in another Muslim nation.
'We should not be afraid to act.' Warplane in Libya
So far, the nation is split about Obama's leadership on Libya. Across multiple polls, about half of those surveyed approve of the way Obama is handling the situation. A Pew poll out Monday found that the public does not think the United States and its allies have a clear goal in Libya – 39% said they do; 50% said they do not.
Obama sought to counter criticism from both left and right over his handling of Libya. Some Democrats are disappointed that Obama would initiate military action against a third Muslim country after inheriting wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Some Republicans say Obama waited too long to help anti-Gaddafi forces and that the US mission should be more clearly aimed at toppling the Libyan dictator. Other Republicans argue the US should not intervene in a conflict that does not directly affect US national security.
Amid protests and crackdowns across the Middle East and North Africa, Obama stated his case that Libya stands alone. Obama said the United States had a unique ability to stop the violence, an international mandate and broad coalition, and the ability to stop Gaddafi's forces without sending in American ground troops. The message to his country and the world: Libya is not a precedent for intervention anywhere else.
In essence, Obama, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, made his case for war. He spoke of justifiable intervention in times when the United States, as the world's most powerful nation, must step in to help.
"In such cases," Obama said, "we should not be afraid to act."
Reaction to the speech in Congress tended to break along partisan lines, with Republicans faulting the president for what they said was his failure to define the mission clearly.
"When our men and women in uniform are sent into harm's way, Americans and troops deserve a clear mission from our commander in chief, not a speech nine days late," said Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, a member of the Armed Services Committee and head of the Senate Republicans' political arm.
"President Obama failed to explain why he unilaterally took our nation to war without bothering to make the case to the US Congress."
Obama steered away from turning his speech into a country-by-country dissection of the Arab revolts that are testing him at every turn. Instead, he spoke in sweeping terms to draw a connecting thread, warning of the broader implications if the US had failed to act in Libya.
"The 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," Obama said. "The writ of the UN Security Council would have been shown to be little more than empty words, crippling its future credibility to uphold global peace and security."
'Broad strategic discussion'
The president also sought to address critics who have said the US mission remains muddled.
Indeed, he reiterated the White House position that Gaddafi should not remain in power but the UN resolution that authorized the use of military force to protect Libyan civilians does not go that far. That gap in directives has left the White House to deal with the prospect that Gaddafi will remain indefinitely. Obama said the US would use other ways to try to isolate him.
He said that the tasks US forces were carrying out - to protect Libyan civilians and establish a no-fly zone - had international support. If the US were to seek to overthrow Gaddafi by force, "our coalition would splinter," the president said.
"Broadening our military mission to include regime change would be a mistake," Obama said.
Left unclear is what happens if Gaddafi stays.
He then raised the issue of Iraq and the move to rid Iraq of Saddam Hussein, a war that deeply divided the nation and defined the presidency of George W. Bush.
"Regime change there took eight years, thousands of American and Iraqi lives and nearly a trillion dollars," Obama said. "That is not something we can afford to repeat in Libya."
Domestic politics got a nod, too, in a nation saddled in debt and embroiled over how to cut spending.
"The risk and cost of this operation - to our military and to American taxpayers - will be reduced significantly," Obama said.
The president said transferring the mission to NATO would leave the United States in a supporting role, providing intelligence, logistical support and search and rescue assistance. He said the US would also use its capabilities to jam Gaddafi's means of communication.
Late Monday, the White House said that Obama had spoken by videoconference with French President Nicolas Sarkozy, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and British Prime Minister David Cameron.
As part of "a broad strategic discussion" of events in the Middle East, "they agreed that Gaddafi had lost any legitimacy to rule and should leave power, and that the Libyan people should have the political space to determine their own future," a White House statement said.
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