Obama’s speech tonight on Libya action comes as U.S. plans to hand off leading role

President Obama’s not-quite-prime-time speech Monday evening on Libya will be his first televised address about the first military operation he has initiated as commander in chief. Not that White House officials are casting it in such grand terms.

In the context of American military campaigns, the timing of Obama’s speech is unusual, coming nine days after the U.S. began missile strikes in Libya. It also comes amid a host of questions, from a war-weary public and a confused Congress, over how long the administration intends to fight in Libya and to what end.

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Obama announced the start of operations in Libya with a low-profile audio message from Brazil, where he was traveling at the time. Monday night, he will use this first televised speech on the action to effectively announce that the U.S. leading role has ended.

NATO is set to take command of Operation Odyssey Dawn, as the campaign is called, and the overstretched U.S. military will fall back into a supporting role.

“The president will use this opportunity to answer the questions the American people have and that members of Congress have,” White House Press Secretary Jay Carney told reporters Monday. “There is complexity here that needs to be explained.”

Obama prefers live audiences to Oval Office addresses, and he will deliver his speech at 7:30 p.m. EST to a group of mid-career military officers at the National Defense University in Washington.

Administration officials have been reluctant to preview the speech, given that it is Obama’s first televised attempt to describe the U.S. interest in opening a third military front in a Muslim nation.

Whether Obama will seek to describe the swift changes unsettling the broader Middle East and North Africa and their long-term effect on U.S. interests in the region is unclear. Popular uprisings have already swept a pair of autocrats long allied with the United States from power in Egypt and Tunisia, and protests threaten a handful of other kings and unelected presidents, from Syria’s Bashar al-Assad to Libya’s Moammar Gaddafi.

Denis R. McDonough, the deputy national security adviser, told reporters at the White House Monday that Obama’s military intervention in Libya is not meant to serve notice to other regional leaders who are using violence to retain power.

Gaddafi’s specific threats against the people in rebel-held Benghazi made Libya different, he said, and made outside intervention more urgent than in other countries.

“I think it’s very important that we see each of these instances, as the president has said since the beginning in the region, as unique,” McDonough said. “We don’t get very hung up on this question of precedent...because we don’t make decisions about questions like intervention based on consistency or precedent. We make them based on how we can best advance our interests in the region.”

“It is important,” he said, “to see each of these incidents as unique.”

But Obama’s policy in Libya and throughout the changing Middle East remains ambiguous.

The administration has condemned some leaders who have turned against their people, such as Gaddafi, and treated others more gently despite their own violent crackdowns, such as King Hamad ibn Isa Al Khalifa of Bahrain.

Some of the public’s confusion, reflected in the demands for clarity made by Congressional leaders from both parties, involve the administration’s end game in the oil-rich North African nation. A Gallup poll published last week showed that 47 percent of the country backs military action in Libya, the lowest support recorded at the start of any recent war.

Obama said early in the conflict that Gaddafi, the erratic army colonel who took power in a coup 41 years ago, “must leave” after turning against civilians to put down the armed rebellion.

But the U.N. resolution, propelled by Arab League support, only authorizes operations to protect civilians, not overthrow the government. Administration officials say financial sanctions among other measures designed to pressure Gaddafi from office - or turn his inner circle against him - will take time to succeed.

McDonough said Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton will be addressing those questions at a summit in London of nations participating in the Libya operation. The meeting, scheduled to begin Tuesday, will also include Arab League members and representatives of the Libyan opposition.

“We think it’s very important to spell out an end state, a vision of where this goes,” McDonough told reporters Monday at the White House.

But Obama’s delay in spelling out his goals in Libya in a televised address has its advantages. For one, fighting on the ground now appears to be going the administration’s way, which couldn’t be said when he ordered the first missile strikes to take out Gaddafi’s air defenses.

As operations began, Gaddafi’s forces were on the doorstep of Benghazi, the provisional rebel capital, and threatening reprisals against anyone who didn’t surrender.

The potential for a mass killing prompted Obama, usually a foreign policy pragmatist, to push the U.N. Security Council to endorse military operations to protect civilians.

But many military strategists, conservatives, and some human rights advocates worried at the time that he had waited too long to intervene, and that outside force would likely only serve to enforce a brutal stalemate on the ground.

By waiting, Obama will be able to put a largely positive gloss on the campaign. The debilitating effect of days of air strikes by U.S., French, and British forces are now evident on the ground.

A lightly trained rebel force appears to be steadily retaking a string of strategic coastal towns from Gaddafi’s weakened military, and on Monday were threatening to drive government troops from Gaddafi's political homeland of Sirte.

“The opposition has regained momentum,” McDonough said.

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