President Barack Obama said there is no conflict between the limited goals of the allied military operation in Libya and his own calls for Muammar Qaddafi to relinquish power.
Obama said that the U.S. is acting with other nations to enforce a United Nations mandate resulting from concerns that Qaddafi was attacking civilians, and that the airstrikes and missile attacks on Libyan air defenses are intended to address a humanitarian crisis.
“Our military action is in support of a international mandate from the Security Council that specifically focuses on the humanitarian threat posed by Colonel Qaddafi to his people,” Obama said at a joint press conference with Chilean President Sebastian Pinera in Santiago. “I also have stated that it is U.S. policy that Qaddafi needs to go. And we’ve got a wide range of tools, in addition to our military efforts, to support that policy.”
Obama has come under criticism from some congressional Republicans who say he hasn’t explained the full U.S. role in the military campaign or its goals.
Obama, 49, arrived in Santiago earlier today after visiting Brazil, Latin America’s biggest economy, as part of a five-day trip aimed at deepening trade ties with Latin America, including openings for U.S. companies in the region’s energy development and infrastructure-building. The joint military campaign by the U.S., the U.K. and France has overshadowed the administration’s themes for the visit.
U.S. and U.K. defense officials have repeatedly said that the UN resolution authorizing the military action doesn’t include removing the Libyan leader from power. That was reinforced today by by Ben Rhodes, Obama’s deputy national security adviser for strategic communications, in a briefing aboard Air Force One.
“There are very clearly defined goals for the military operations that we taking,” Rhodes said. “It’s not about regime change.”
Obama said the U.S. will hand off command of military operations in Libya once the initial phase -- knocking out Qaddafi’s air defenses -- is completed.
Military commanders will make the recommendations on when the transition takes place, he said.
“We have a range of coalition partners -- the Europeans, members of the Arab League -- who will then be participating in establishing a no-fly zone there,” Obama said. “We anticipate this transition to take place in a matter of days and not a matter of weeks.”
The strikes were launched in response to gains by forces loyal to Qaddafi in putting down a rebellion aimed at toppling his government. Qaddafi’s forces last week had closed in on the rebel stronghold of Benghazi after recapturing almost all of the towns they lost during the uprising.
Oil prices rose as the attack threatened to prolong a supply disruption in Africa’s third-biggest producer and on concern that escalating turmoil may curtail Middle East shipments.
Crude oil for April delivery increased $1.26 to $102.33 a barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange, the highest settlement since March 10. The April contract expires tomorrow. The more-actively traded May futures advanced $1.24, or 1.2 percent, to $103.09.
House Speaker John Boehner, an Ohio Republican, yesterday called on Obama to “do a better job of communicating to the American people and to Congress about our mission in Libya and how it will be achieved.”
The president also came in for criticism from two senior Republicans. Arizona Senator John McCain, the top Republican on the Armed Services Committee, said on CNN’s “State of the Union” program that while he supported the strike, he believes that Obama waited too long.
Appearing on “Fox News Sunday,” Senator Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican who also serves on the Armed Services panel, echoed McCain’s remarks and questioned the U.S. position in the coalition.
“I’m very worried that we’re taking the back seat, rather than a leadership role,” Graham said.
Obama briefed Democratic and Republican leaders, including senior members of key committees, about the U.S. plans on March 18.
Tom Donilon, Obama’s national security adviser, defended the administration’s response and its dealing with lawmakers.
“It is absolutely important to have great clarity” on the military mission “ and I think that we have done that,” Donilon told reporters traveling with the president in South America. “We look forward to working quite directly with Speaker Boehner and all the members of Congress who have responsibility here on this as we go forward.”
The turmoil in North Africa and the Middle East, triggered by the revolt that ousted President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia on Jan. 14, led to the removal of President Hosni Mubarak in Egypt as well as protests in Saudi Arabia and Syria and an uprising against the Sunni monarchy in Bahrain.