Obama Says U.S. Forced to Act in Libya to Avert Massacre

U.S. President Barack Obama
U.S. President Barack Obama. Photographer: Dennis Brack/Pool via Bloomberg

President Barack Obama declared a doctrine for using military force that envisions a global U.S. role to halt atrocities repugnant to “our common humanity” while limiting the burden the nation will bear.

In an address on the mission in Libya, Obama presented a rationale for committing U.S. armed forces in the North African country that balances humanitarian principles and strategic calculation. In doing so, he set out differences with the way his two immediate predecessors handled foreign crises.

“We should not be afraid to act, but the burden of action should not be America’s alone,” Obama said last night at the National Defense University in Washington.

Obama’s speech, coming nine days after the U.S. and its allies began airstrikes in Libya, was his first televised address directly to the U.S. public seeking to explain and defend his use of force. Leading Republicans and some members of his own party have criticized the president for not defining the mission’s objectives, costs and timeframe and for not consulting more with Congress.

Obama said he had to take military action in Libya to avert a massacre of civilians that would have “stained the conscience of the world.”

Guide to Action

Arguing that circumstances in Libya were unique, he laid out principles to guide military commitments abroad that involve case-by-case decision-making when U.S. security isn’t directly threatened. He emphasized collective international action and prospects for success in humanitarian endeavors.

“American leadership is not simply a matter of going it alone,” Obama said. “Real leadership creates the conditions and coalitions for others to step up as well.”

In Libya, Obama cited the coalition of European and Arab allies participating in the mission, as well as an appeal to act from regional governments through the Arab League and a mandate from the United Nations.

“He wasn’t setting down an Obama doctrine of whenever there is a potential humanitarian catastrophe we will have our troops there,” said Mark Quarterman, an analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “If there’s any doctrine there, it’s the burden-sharing doctrine.”

Dealing With Qaddafi

Obama said Muammar Qaddafi must relinquish power, while declaring that expanding the military effort to overthrow the Libyan regime would be a “mistake.”

The president also touched on the broader turmoil sweeping across the Middle East and North Africa, saying the instability in Libya could threaten the democratic transitions in Egypt and Tunisia. He said the U.S. role in Libya would be limited, without giving a timeline for the military campaign.

The upheavals in the region have raised concern that crude supplies from the Middle East could be reduced. Oil prices have jumped more than 20 percent since the mid-February outbreak of the rebellion in Libya, which holds Africa’s largest proven reserves.

Obama used the speech to mark the progress the alliance has made in stopping the advance of Qaddafi’s forces and announced that the North Atlantic Treaty Organization would assume command of the entire operation tomorrow.

Contrasts With Predecessors

Without mentioning former Presidents Bill Clinton or George W. Bush by name, Obama, 49, suggested he is choosing a different approach than they did in using the military.

He said he “refused to wait for the images of slaughter and mass graves before taking action,” a charge that has been leveled against Clinton’s responses in Bosnia and Rwanda.

He contrasted the speed of the U.S. response to the actions in Bosnia during Clinton’s administration in the 1990s, saying then “it took the international community more than a year to intervene with air power.”

In arguing against using the military to overthrow Qaddafi, Obama said it would splinter the coalition and probably require troops on the ground.

“To be blunt, we went down that road in Iraq,” said Obama, who ran as a candidate for president as an early critic of Bush’s decision to go to war in 2003. “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.”

London Meeting

To map out the path ahead, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is meeting today in London with counterparts from more than 30 nations. The aim of the group is to work on the next steps for what the allies say will be a transition for Libya. Clinton said the allies “must continue to increase the pressure on and deepen the isolation of the Qaddafi regime.”

Much of the U.S. public perceives a murky commitment in Libya. Only 39 percent of Americans said they believe the U.S. and its allies have a clear goal for the military mission, according to a poll by the Pew Research Center completed March 27. Six out of 10 Americans said they anticipate a lengthy U.S. military involvement, according to the poll.

Obama’s speech didn’t quell objections from leading Republicans and some Democrats that he hasn’t explained the mission’s objectives or the scope of the nation’s commitment.

Michael Steel, a spokesman for Republican House Speaker John Boehner, said Obama hasn’t answered questions about the operation’s goal.

“Nine days into this military intervention, Americans still have no answer to the fundamental question: What does success in Libya look like?” he said in a statement.

Many of Obama’s fellow Democrats came to his defense. Representative Adam Smith of Washington, the top Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, said he backed Obama’s approach in reining in the military commitment.

“It is also important to note that many who urged the administration to act, are now criticizing the administration for its actions,” Smith said in a statement.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal. LEARN MORE