Obama Makes Case for U.S. Participation in Libya

WASHINGTON, March 28, 2011 — It was in America’s vital inter­ests to stop a mas­sacre in Libya, Pres­i­dent Barack Oba­ma said today at the Nation­al Defense Uni­ver­si­ty.
Oba­ma spoke of the jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for estab­lish­ing the no-fly zone over Libya and pro­tect­ing the Libyan peo­ple from Moam­mar Gadhafi’s regime to an audi­ence of stu­dents and fac­ul­ty gath­ered at Lin­coln Hall on Fort Les­ley J. McNair here.

Oba­ma spoke of the cru­el­ty that Gad­hafi showed in sup­press­ing Libyans who want­ed a dif­fer­ent gov­ern­ment for the coun­try.

“In the face of the world’s con­dem­na­tion, Gad­hafi chose to esca­late his attacks, launch­ing a mil­i­tary cam­paign against the Libyan peo­ple,” Oba­ma said. “Inno­cent peo­ple were tar­get­ed for killing. Hos­pi­tals and ambu­lances were attacked. Jour­nal­ists were arrest­ed, sex­u­al­ly assault­ed and killed.”

Gad­hafi ordered his sol­diers to cut off food, water and fuel to cities along the coast, and shelled cities and towns. “Mil­i­tary jets and heli­copter gun­ships were unleashed upon peo­ple who had no means to defend them­selves against assault from the air,” he said.

“Con­front­ed by this bru­tal repres­sion and a loom­ing human­i­tar­i­an cri­sis, I ordered war­ships into the Mediter­ranean,” the pres­i­dent said. “Euro­pean allies declared their will­ing­ness to com­mit resources to stop the killing. The Libyan oppo­si­tion, and the Arab League, appealed to the world to save lives in Libya.

“At my direc­tion,” he con­tin­ued, “Amer­i­ca led an effort with our allies at the Unit­ed Nations Secu­ri­ty Coun­cil to pass an his­toric res­o­lu­tion that autho­rized a no-fly zone to stop the regime’s attacks from the air, and fur­ther autho­rized all nec­es­sary mea­sures to pro­tect the Libyan peo­ple.”

The coali­tion began mil­i­tary oper­a­tions to enforce the U.N. res­o­lu­tion nine days ago, after it became appar­ent that regime forces were bear­ing down on Beng­hazi – the strong­hold of the rebel­lion and home to more than 700,000 men, women and chil­dren.

“We knew that if we wait­ed one more day, Beng­hazi … could suf­fer a mas­sacre that would have rever­ber­at­ed across the region and stained the con­science of the world,” Oba­ma said. “It was not in our nation­al inter­est to let that hap­pen,” the pres­i­dent said. “I refused to let that hap­pen.”

After con­sult­ing con­gres­sion­al lead­ers, Oba­ma ordered the strikes to save Beng­hazi. “We hit Gadhafi’s troops in neigh­bor­ing Ajd­abiya, allow­ing the oppo­si­tion to dri­ve them out,” he said. “We hit his air defens­es, which paved the way for a no-fly zone. We tar­get­ed tanks and mil­i­tary assets that had been chok­ing off towns and cities and we cut off much of their source of sup­ply. And tonight, I can report that we have stopped Gadhafi’s dead­ly advance.”

The Unit­ed States act­ed as leader of a coali­tion of nations. The Unit­ed King­dom, France, Cana­da, Den­mark, Nor­way, Italy, Spain, Greece, Turkey, Qatar and the Unit­ed Arab Emi­rates joined in the respon­si­bil­i­ty to defend the Libyan peo­ple, Oba­ma said.

“In just one month, the Unit­ed States has worked with our inter­na­tion­al part­ners to mobi­lize a broad coali­tion, secure an inter­na­tion­al man­date to pro­tect civil­ians, stop an advanc­ing army, pre­vent a mas­sacre, and estab­lish a no-fly zone with our allies and part­ners,” he 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,” he con­tin­ued. “We did it in 31 days.”

These objec­tives are con­sis­tent with the president’s pledge that the U.S. mil­i­tary role would be lim­it­ed. No U.S. ground forces are in Libya, and unique Amer­i­can capa­bil­i­ties that were impor­tant at the begin­ning of this oper­a­tion are being with­drawn. How­ev­er, Amer­i­can sup­port will con­tin­ue as NATO takes com­mand. “This trans­fer from the Unit­ed States to NATO will take place on Wednes­day,” Oba­ma said.

Still, the Unit­ed States will con­tin­ue to work with inter­na­tion­al part­ners to pro­vide assis­tance to the peo­ple of Libya, and the Unit­ed States will hold in trust $33 bil­lion of seized Libyan assets to help rebuild the coun­try. Oba­ma is send­ing Sec­re­tary of State Hillary Rod­ham Clin­ton to Lon­don where she will meet with Libyan oppo­si­tion mem­bers and rep­re­sen­ta­tives from more than 30 nations.

“These dis­cus­sions will focus on what kind of polit­i­cal effort is nec­es­sary to pres­sure Gad­hafi, while also sup­port­ing a tran­si­tion to the future that the Libyan peo­ple deserve,” Oba­ma said. “Because while our mil­i­tary mis­sion is nar­row­ly focused on sav­ing lives, we con­tin­ue to pur­sue the broad­er goal of a Libya that belongs not to a dic­ta­tor, but to its peo­ple.”

And the peo­ple of Libya ulti­mate­ly must decide what hap­pens in their coun­try. “Gad­hafi has not yet stepped down from pow­er, and until he does, Libya will remain dan­ger­ous,” he said. He promised U.S. help as the process con­tin­ues.

Oba­ma appealed to Amer­i­can ideals and val­ues in respect to stop­ping a mas­sacre in Libya. “Some ques­tion why Amer­i­ca should inter­vene at all – even in lim­it­ed ways – in this dis­tant land,” he said. “They argue that there are many places in the world where inno­cent civil­ians face bru­tal vio­lence at the hands of their gov­ern­ment, and Amer­i­ca should not be expect­ed to police the world, par­tic­u­lar­ly when we have so many press­ing con­cerns here at home.”

The Unit­ed States can­not police the world, nor should it, the pres­i­dent said. “Giv­en the costs and risks of inter­ven­tion, we must always mea­sure our inter­ests against the need for action,” he said. “But that can­not be an argu­ment for nev­er act­ing on behalf of what’s right.

“In this par­tic­u­lar coun­try – Libya; at this par­tic­u­lar moment, we were faced with the prospect of vio­lence on a hor­rif­ic scale,” he con­tin­ued. “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. We also had the abil­i­ty to stop Gadhafi’s forces in their tracks with­out putting Amer­i­can troops on the ground.”

Amer­i­ca has a respon­si­bil­i­ty to lead and to help those seek­ing free­dom, he said. “To brush aside … our respon­si­bil­i­ties to our fel­low human beings under such cir­cum­stances would have been a betray­al of who we are,” he said. “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.”

Peace and ulti­mate sta­bil­i­ty in the rest of the region would have been affect­ed if Gad­hafi had been allowed to mur­der his peo­ple into sub­mis­sion. Just as Egypt and Tunisia are reach­ing for free­dom, tyrants across the area would con­clude that vio­lence is the best strat­e­gy to cling to pow­er.

“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,” he said. “So while I will nev­er min­i­mize the costs involved in mil­i­tary action, I am con­vinced that a fail­ure to act in Libya would have car­ried a far greater price for Amer­i­ca.”

Gad­hafi gone is best for the coun­try, the pres­i­dent said. “But broad­en­ing our mil­i­tary mis­sion to include regime change would be a mis­take,” he said flat­ly. “The task that I assigned our forces — to pro­tect the Libyan peo­ple from imme­di­ate dan­ger, and to estab­lish a no-fly zone — car­ries with it a U.N. man­date and inter­na­tion­al sup­port.”

Over­throw­ing Gad­hafi would splin­ter the coali­tion and require U.S. ground forces. “To be blunt, we went down that road in Iraq,” he said. “Thanks to the extra­or­di­nary sac­ri­fices of our troops and the deter­mi­na­tion of our diplo­mats, we are hope­ful about Iraq’s future. 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.”

U.S. Depart­ment of Defense
Office of the Assis­tant Sec­re­tary of Defense (Pub­lic Affairs)

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