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Updated: March 29, 2011 23:34 IST

Obama defends U.S. role

Narayan Lakshman
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U.S. President Barack Obama delivers his address on Libya at the National Defense University in Washington, on Monday.
AP U.S. President Barack Obama delivers his address on Libya at the National Defense University in Washington, on Monday.

In a speech that was long on grand sentiment and short on strategic detail, United States President Barack Obama laid out the justification for the U.S.’ military intervention in Libya, at the National Defense University here.

Speaking to an audience of top military brass but addressing his remarks to the American people, Mr. Obama cast Libyan leader Muammar Qadhafi as a murderous "tyrant" who targeted innocents, saying, "There is no question that Libya — and the world — would be better off with Qadhafi out of power..."

Mr. Obama also reiterated the message that he was abiding by his promise that in the Libyan engagement "America’s role would be limited; that we would not put ground troops into Libya; that we would focus our unique capabilities on the front end of the operation and that we would transfer responsibility to our allies and partners."

However, he did not spell out how long the present phase of the operations would last, the date on which all U.S. troops not a part of NATO would withdraw, and how exactly he visualised balance of power between Qadhafi and the rebel groups in Libya evolving.

Striking a defensive note, the President said the U.S. had intervened in Libya because - "We had a unique ability to stop that violence: an international mandate for action, a broad coalition prepared to join us, the support of Arab countries, and a plea for help from the Libyan people themselves."

Yet in doing so, he made no mention of the fact that numerous nations including India, and the United Nations Security Council members China and Russia, had abstained from voting through the resolution mandating action by Western powers on Libyan soil.

AP reports:

Vigorously defending the first war launched on his watch, U.S. President Barack Obama declared on Monday night that the United States intervened in Libya to prevent a slaughter of civilians that would have stained the world’s conscience and “been a betrayal of who we are” as Americans. Yet he ruled out targeting Muammar Qadhafi, warning that trying to oust the Libyan leader militarily would be a mistake as costly as the war in Iraq.

Mr. Obama announced that NATO would take command over the entire Libya operation on Wednesday, keeping his pledge to get the U.S. 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.

He declined to label the U.S.-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, Mr. Obama said the U.S.-led response had stopped Mr. Qadhafi’s advances and halted a slaughter that could have shaken the stability of an entire region.

Mr. Obama cast the intervention in Libya as imperative to keep Mr. Qadhafi 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,” Mr. Obama said. He spoke in a televised address to the nation, delivered in front of 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,” Mr. Obama said. “And as President, I refused to wait for the images of slaughter and mass graves before taking action.”

In Libya, rebel forces bore down Monday on Mr. Qadhafi’s hometown of Sirte with the help of airstrikes by the U.S.-led forces. His speech was his most aggressive attempt to answer questions mounting from Republican critics, his own party and war-weary Americans, chiefly, why the U.S. was immersed in war in another Muslim nation.

So far, the nation is split about Mr. Obama’s leadership on Libya. Across multiple polls, about half of those surveyed approve of the way Mr. 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 per cent said they do; 50 percent said they do not.

Mr. Obama sought to counter criticism from both left and right over his handling of Libya. Some Democrats are disappointed that Mr. Obama would initiate military action against a third Muslim country after inheriting wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Some Republicans say Mr. Obama waited too long to help anti-Qadhafi forces and that the U.S. mission should be more clearly aimed at toppling the Libyan dictator. Other Republicans argue the U.S. should not intervene in a conflict that does not directly affect U.S. national security.

Amid protests and crackdowns across the Middle East and North Africa, Mr. Obama stated his case that Libya stands alone. Mr. Obama said the United States had a unique ability to stop the violence, an international mandate and broad coalition, and the ability to stop Mr. Qadhafi’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.

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,” Mr. 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 U.S. Congress.”

Mr. 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 U.S. 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,” Mr. Obama said. “The writ of the U.N. Security Council would have been shown to be little more than empty words, crippling its future credibility to uphold global peace and security.”

The President also sought to address critics who have said the U.S. mission remains muddled. Indeed, he reiterated the White House position that Mr. Qadhafi should not remain in power but the U.N. resolution that authorised 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 Mr. Qadhafi will remain indefinitely. Mr. Obama said the U.S. would use other ways to try to isolate him.

He said that the tasks U.S. forces were carrying out, to protect Libyan civilians and establish a no-fly zone, had international support. If the U.S. were to seek to overthrow Mr. Qadhafi by force, “our coalition would splinter,” the President said.

“Broadening our military mission to include regime change would be a mistake,” Mr. Obama said.

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,” Mr. 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,” Mr. 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 U.S. would also use its capabilities to jam Mr. Qadhafi’s means of communication.

The fighting in Libya has created a distraction at a time that Mr. Obama was expected to focus on U.S. budget battles and the economy - the issues likely to dominate his re-election campaign next year.

The government faces a partial shutdown if Democrats and Republicans can’t work out major differences and pass a spending bill by April 8. Meanwhile, the economy is recovering only gradually from the recession. Unemployment remains high at almost 9 per cent.

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