WASHINGTON, DC - APRIL 23: US President Barack Obama makes a statement on the Brady Briefing room at the White House April 23, 2015 in Washington, DC. President Obama talked about a US drone strike that targeted a suspected al Qaeda compound in Pakistan but inadvertently killed an American and Italian being held hostage by the group. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images) (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

When presidents talk about military operations — even failed ones — they typically rely on soaring rhetoric to explain losses or justify battlefield setbacks.

Sacrifices are said to have advanced freedom or forestalled suffering in a distant land.

President Obama’s spare appearance at the White House on Thursday to announce the accidental killing of two hostages in a CIA drone strike in Pakistan included no talk of a higher cause or larger struggle.

The president didn’t even mention, as he often does when discussing counter­terrorism operations, his responsibility to defend the nation.

Instead, his statement mixed a deeply personal sense of regret with the often sterile, legal justifications that have guided his administration’s long-running drone war. Obama spoke for just over seven minutes, glancing down frequently at his printed text. There was no effort to elevate the tragedy to something noble, or wrap it in inspiring words.

Instead, his remarks underscored the growing ambivalence about his administration’s heavy use of drones to kill America’s enemies on remote battlefields. In January, Obama said, one of those strikes killed aid workers Warren Weinstein of Maryland and Giovanni Lo Porto of Italy.

“As a father I cannot begin to imagine the anguish that the Weinstein and Lo Porto families are enduring today,” he said. “I realize there are no words that can equal their loss.”

“I take full responsibility,” the president said.

He then noted that the operation, which killed the aid workers, was “fully consistent with the guidelines” that his administration had put in place for counter­terrorism operations. Hundreds of hours of surveillance video had been collected before the strike in an effort to ensure that there were no civilians present in the compound that was hit, Obama said. The president’s standard of “near certainty” for drone strikes had fallen victim to what he called the “fog of war.”

Obama’s remarks were most notable for what was missing from them — any sense that the tragedy served a greater good. When an American warplane accidentally struck the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade in 1999 during the Kosovo campaign, President Bill Clinton lamented the losses caused by the U.S. military’s mistake. But he also noted that the U.S. military was fighting on behalf of others. “Many thousands of Kosovars have been killed,” he said. “There have been rapes; they have been burned out of their homes. . . . Someone, sometime has got to stand up against this sort of ethnic cleansing.”

Speaking of a terrorist bomb attack in Beirut in 1983 that killed more than 200 Marines, President Ronald Reagan cited America’s broader mission in the world. “In these last few days, I’ve been more sure than I’ve ever been that we Americans of today will keep freedom and maintain peace,” he said. Not long after that statement, he ordered the withdrawal of the Marine Corps from Lebanon.

The drone strikes that killed Weinstein and Lo Porto weren’t part of some American grand strategy to improve the world. They were largely piecemeal and defensive in nature.

On those rare occasions when he has talked about the strikes, Obama has often expressed a deep ambivalence about them, acknowledging their necessity as well as their costs. “In the absence of a strategy that reduces the wellspring of extremism, a perpetual war — through drones or Special Forces or troop deployments — will prove self-defeating and alter our country in troubling ways,” he said in a 2013 speech.

When a heckler at the 2013 speech berated him for his failure to close the U.S. detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and the civilian casualties caused by drone strikes, Obama didn’t immediately cut her off.

“The voice of that woman is worth paying attention to,” he said. “These are tough issues, and the suggestion that we gloss over them is wrong.”

That same spirit infused Obama’s remarks Thursday. Initially there was a thought that the president might only issue a written statement expressing responsibility and regret for the deaths, said a senior administration official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.

“What really was the president’s decision is that he would go out and speak on it,” the official said. “He felt the most important thing he could do is take responsibility for this, and that’s much more powerfully done in person.”

In recent years, Obama has sought to scale back America’s overseas military commitments, maintaining that the country has relied too heavily on force to solve problems better suited to diplomacy. He’s dramatically reduced the number of U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, even as the ongoing conflicts there have prevented him from ending the wars entirely.

His critics, both Republican and Democrat, have said that his growing caution regarding the use of U.S. military might in places such as Syria and Ukraine has allowed those conflicts to grow more violent and chaotic.

One constant for the president has been the use of drone strikes to kill people believed to be plotting against the United States. Even as the nation has scaled back attacks in Pakistan in recent years, drone strikes have increased in Yemen and Somalia. Drones have been used on new battlefields such as Syria.

A campaign that Obama had hoped would be diminishing as his presidency neared its end has become an almost-permanent part of America’s overseas posture. One question facing the administration is whether the al-Qaeda threat has been sufficiently reduced in Afghanistan and Pakistan that the CIA-led drone campaign there might be able to draw to a close before the end of Obama’s term.

For now, though, that seems unlikely. “The threat is still there, even if it is diminished,” said the administration official.

The president didn’t discuss any of those trade-offs at the White House. Instead he talked about the two aid workers who had left behind the comforts of their home countries to help the people of Pakistan escape poverty.

Lo Porto “fell in love with Pakistan and its people and believed passionately that he could make a difference in their lives,” Obama said.

Weinstein, the president added, “had lived the ideals of our country.”

“The shining example of these two men will stand as a light to people all over the world who see suffering and answer with compassion,” the president said.

His focus was on the individuals lost and his role. “I profoundly regret what happened,” Obama said.

Julie Tate contributed to this report.