WASHINGTON, DC (CBS/AP) – In a nearly 30-minute speech at National Defense University Monday night, President Obama offered a step-by-step chronology and justification of the why the U.S. decided to intervene in Libya. “In such cases, we should not be afraid to act – but the burden of action should not be America’s alone,” he said.
“Qaddafi declared that he would show ‘no mercy’ to his own people. He compared them to rats, and threatened to go door to door to inflict punishment. In the past, we had seen him hang civilians in the streets, and kill over a thousand people in a single day,” Mr. Obama said. “Now, we saw regime forces on the outskirts of the city. We knew that if we waited one more day, Benghazi – a city nearly the size of Charlotte – could suffer a massacre that would have reverberated across the region and stained the conscience of the world.
“It was not in our national interest to let that happen. I refused to let that happen. And so nine days ago, after consulting the bipartisan leadership of Congress, I authorized military action to stop the killing and enforce UN Security Council Resolution 1973.”
He said that it was America’s “responsibility” to intervene in Libya.
“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. Some nations may be able to turn a blind eye to atrocities in other countries. The United States of America is different. And as President, I refused to wait for the images of slaughter and mass graves before taking action,” he said.
Ten days into the conflict, the U.S. is taking a lesser role. So far, the U.S. has flown 983 of the 1,602 sorties, rendering Qaddafi regime air forces and fixed defenses ineffective.
“I said that 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. Tonight, we are fulfilling that pledge,” he said.
Mr. Obama also said that NATO would take responsibility for protecting Libyan citizens, in addition to the no-fly zone, on Wednesday.
The U.S. will play more of a supporting role, “including intelligence, logistical support, search and rescue assistance, and capabilities to jam regime communications.”
“As we have in Libya, our task is instead to mobilize the international community for collective action,” Mr. Obama said. “Because contrary to the claims of some, American leadership is not simply a matter of going it alone and bearing all of the burden ourselves. Real leadership creates the conditions and coalitions for others to step up as well; to work with allies and partners so that they bear their share of the burden and pay their share of the costs; and to see that the principles of justice and human dignity are upheld by all.”
In response to critics who said he waited too long to deploy a no-fly zone, Mr. Obama said, “To lend some perspective on how rapidly this military and diplomatic response came together, when people were being brutalized in Bosnia in the 1990s, it took the international community more than a year to intervene with air power to protect civilians.”
Just prior to Mr. Obama’s speech the White House put out a statement of unity from western leaders on the fate of Qaddafi. France President Nicolas Sarkozy, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and UK Prime Minister David Cameron agreed with Mr. Obama that Qaddafi has “lost any legitimacy to rule and should leave power, and that the Libyan people should have the political space to determine their own future.”
Regarding the U.S. policy, distinct from Security Council Resolution 1973, Mr. Obama said that while the “world will be better off with Qaddafi out of power,” broadening our mission to include regime change would be a “mistake.” He allowed that he and other world leaders would pursue regime change in Libya through “non-military means.”
He compared the Iraq war with the ongoing upheaval in Libya, saying that the U.S. cannot turn Libya into an Iraq situation.
“Thanks to the extraordinary sacrifices of our troops and the determination of our diplomats, we are hopeful about Iraq’s future,” he said. “But regime change there took eight years, thousands of American and Iraqi lives, and nearly a trillion dollars. That is not something we can afford to repeat in Libya.”
He closed with a broad statement regarding American intervention in situations like Libya:
“There will be times, though, when our safety is not directly threatened, but our interests and values are. Sometimes, the course of history poses challenges that threaten our common humanity and common security – responding to natural disasters, for example; or preventing genocide and keeping the peace; ensuring regional security, and maintaining the flow of commerce. These may not be America’s problems alone, but they are important to us, and they are problems worth solving. And in these circumstances, we know that the United States, as the world’s most powerful nation, will often be called upon to help.”