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President Obama defends US presence in Libya

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By James Oliphant
Courtesy MCT Campus

In his remarks to the nation Monday, President Barack Obama needed to navigate a narrow, thorny path in explaining the United States’ involvement in Libya’s internal strife.

And he had to outline, to some degree, a doctrine for use of American power in situations where a clear national threat was not evident.

Those objectives inevitably at times collided Monday in a speech at the National Defense University in Washington, as the president attempted to articulate why American might was so crucial to push back against Gadhafi’s forces in Libya, but tempered that aggressive call to arms with a dose of geopolitical reality.

But from the outset, Obama strongly defended the U.S. strikes, saying they had achieved their initial goal.

“We have stopped Gadhafi’s deadly advance,” the president said. “The United States of America has done what it said it would do.”

Accused by Republicans such as Sarah Palin of “dithering” on Libya, Obama responded by saying his administration had acted aggressively, with historic speed.

“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,” 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.”

While the United Nations’ resolution under which the U.S. and its allies are operating does not call for Gadhafi’s ouster, Obama made it vividly clear early in the speech that the four-decade ruler of Libya must depart, casting him as an oppressive dictator with blood on his hands.

Some Democrats in Congress have been pushing for Obama to define Gadhafi as more of a direct threat to the U.S. – and the president complied, implicitly mentioning the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, an attack Gadhafi is accused of masterminding.

Gadhafi, Obama said, “has denied his people freedom, exploited their wealth, murdered opponents at home and abroad, and terrorized innocent people around the world – including Americans who were killed by Libyan agents.”

Intervening in Libya, the president said, became part of America’s national interest once it was clear that Gadhafi’s forces were poised to attack the rebel-held city of Benghazi, which he likened to an American city.

“The United States and the world faced a choice. Gadhafi 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 1,000 people in a single day,” 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,” he said.

Later, the president asserted that the U.S. has “an important strategic interest in preventing Gadhafi from overrunning those who oppose him,” saying that the conflict in Libya would spread beyond its borders, endangering democracy movements in neighboring Egypt and Tunisia.

Having defined the national interest, Obama then reassured the public that the U.S. role would be a restrained one.

The president also addressed critics who have argued that the U.S. should not have interjected itself into what some call a civil war.

“There will be times, though, when our safety is not directly threatened, but our interests and values are,” the president said.