Facing accusations that he has not explained the United States’ interest in Libya’s war, Obama said the nation had a responsibility to prevent a mass killing after Gaddafi pledged to carry out a brutal reprisal campaign against civilians in rebel-held territory. He emphasized that the mission was undertaken with the United States’ closest allies, and that command of the military operation will be transferred to NATO on Wednesday.
“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 told an audience of mid-career military officers, who remained quiet during much of the 27-minute address. “Some nations may be able to turn a blind eye to atrocities in other countries. The United States of America is different.”
At the same time, Obama stressed the limits he placed on the operation, saying he acted only after securing broad international cooperation, kept out U.S. ground forces, and planned for a quick transfer of command to European allies.
Those guidelines could dictate how Obama approaches similar civil conflicts, including the other popular uprising now recasting much of the Middle East. In the case of Libya, he said that expanding the operation from protecting civilians to removing Gaddafi from power would fracture the coalition of European and Arab support, leaving the United States to pick up the cost.
“To be blunt, we went down that road in Iraq,” Obama said, referring to the 2003 U.S.-led invasion that was done without United Nations approval. “Regime change there took eight years, thousands of American and Iraqi lives, and nearly $1 trillion. That is not something we can afford to repeat in Libya.”
Obama has sought to link American values with his foreign policy priorities throughout his presidency, and the arguments he laid out in his address Monday echoed those he made on “just war” when he accepted the Nobel Peace Prize in December 2009.
Since he announced the start of operations in Libya with a low-profile audio message from Brazil, Obama has faced 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.
Conservatives have accused him of indecision and of diminishing American leadership in the world, while his own party has been divided over the value of opening a third military front in a Muslim nation. A recent Gallup poll showed that 47 percent of Americans favor military action in Libya, the lowest support recorded at the start of any recent war.