President Barack Obama tonight plans to give the American people his justification for intervening in Libya and how it fits in with broader U.S. interests in the region as he faces questions from Congress and skepticism from the public.
With the U.S. now engaged in a third military action in a Muslim country, Obama is being challenged to show that his goals in Libya are achievable and won’t lead to a protracted commitment of troops and money.
Obama’s advisers stressed that, by taking action in Libya, the president isn’t setting a policy for U.S. involvement in uprisings that have spread across North African and Middle Eastern countries including Yemen, Jordan, Egypt, Libya, Morocco, Syria and Bahrain.
Each case is “unique,” Denis McDonough, deputy national security adviser, said at a briefing today.
“We don’t make decisions about questions like intervention based on consistency or precedent,” McDonough said. “We make them based on how we can best advance our interests in the region.”
Obama is giving the address, scheduled for 7:30 p.m. local time at the National Defense University in Washington, a day after the North Atlantic Treaty Organization agreed to take full command of all military operations related to enforcement of the United Nations mandate to ensure the safety of civilians in Libya against forces loyal to Muammar Qaddafi.
Oil prices have jumped about 25 percent since the Libyan rebellion began in mid-February, heightening concerns that Middle East crude supplies could be disrupted. The revolt in Libya has evolved into an armed conflict from the kind of popular uprising that toppled leaders in Egypt and Tunisia.
The president and members of his administration have repeatedly used the word “limited” to describe the U.S. role in Libya.
In his weekly radio and Internet address on March 26, Obama said the mission in Libya is “clear and focused.” He also laid out a rationale that aides said would be part of tonight’s speech.
“When someone like Qaddafi threatens a bloodbath that could destabilize an entire region, and when the international community is prepared to come together to save many thousands of lives, then it’s in our national interest to act,” Obama said.
At an education event today in Washington, Obama was asked to give a preview of his address, and he repeated that U.S. involvement will be restricted in “time and scope.”
Update on Progress
Tonight’s speech, which likely will last 20 to 25 minutes, is being cast as an update on the progress in the operation and will touch on the broader issues raised by the upheaval sweeping the Middle East and North Africa, according to an administration official who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the address.
“He needs to tell Americans why this is important, why seeing a huge potential humanitarian disaster unfold was important to stop,” said Steve Clemons, an analyst with the New America Foundation, whom the administration has consulted about democracy movements in the region.
Potentially the toughest task for Obama will be explaining what his Republican critics say is the gap between his declaration that Qaddafi “must go” and the narrow objectives of the UN-mandated military campaign.
Asked yesterday if Obama wants Qaddafi to leave, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said the administration wanted the Libyan leader removed without using military means.
“The president’s policy is that it’s time for Qaddafi to go,” he said on the NBC program “Meet the Press.” “That’s not part of our military mission, which has been very limited and very strictly defined.”
In addition to the military intervention, the Obama administration also has pursued an array of economic sanctions directed at the Qaddafi regime. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has said there is evidence that some members of Qaddafi’s regime are trying to open a dialogue with members of the coalition arrayed against the Libyan leader.
“We have things in our tool box in addition to hammers,” Gates said.
Still, administration critics are calling for more clarity. Senator Richard Lugar of Indiana, the ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said on the NBC program that Obama thus far hasn’t offered a plan or objectives for U.S. involvement in Libya and that there should have been congressional debate on the issue.
“I don’t believe we should be engaged in a Libyan civil war,” Lugar said. “American interests are not at stake.”
Obama, he said, hasn’t yet detailed his objectives for the Libyan operation and he went forward “without adequate consultation with Congress or sufficient explanation to the American people.”
Peter Feaver, who was on the staff of the National Security Council under Bush and President Bill Clinton, said Obama’s approach to the conflict is similar to the administration’s way of dealing with Afghanistan and Iraq. Obama has sought to avoid making those wars central to his presidency.
“Their approach to Libya is to view this as a limited liability operation,” said Feaver, director of security studies for the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina. “Their real focus is elsewhere; their focus is health care or jobs.”
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