WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama delivered a broad defense Monday of his decision to intervene in Libya and of his leadership style, arguing that the United States has a strategic interest in preventing the killing of civilians around the world and that it must do so in partnership with other nations.
Speaking at the National Defense University, Obama used his first televised address since military operations began in Libya nine days ago to outline an expansive rationale for intervention in civil conflicts such as the push under way to topple Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi.
Facing accusations that he has not explained the United States' interest in Libya's war, Obama said the nation had a responsibility to prevent a mass killing after Gadhafi pledged to carry out a brutal reprisal campaign against civilians in rebel-held territory. He emphasized that the mission was undertaken with the United States' closest allies and that command of the military operation will be transferred to NATO on Wednesday.
"To brush aside America's responsibility as a leader and — more profoundly — our responsibilities to our fellow human beings under such circumstances would have been a betrayal of who we are," Obama told an audience of mid-career military officers, who remained quiet during much of the 27-minute address. "Some nations may be able to turn a blind eye to atrocities in other countries. The United States of America is different."
Since he announced the start of operations in Libya with a low-profile audio message from Brazil, Obama has faced a host of questions, from a war-weary public and a confused Congress, over how long the administration intends to fight in Libya and to what end.
Brendan Buck, a spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said Monday night that "it was helpful that the American people were able to hear from their commander in chief tonight. Unfortunately, Americans waited a long time to get few new answers."
"Whether it's the American resources that will be required, our standards and objectives for engaging the rebel opposition, or how this action is consistent with U.S. policy goals, the speech failed to provide Americans much clarity to our involvement in Libya," Buck added. "Nine days into this military intervention, Americans still have no answer to the fundamental question: What does success in Libya look like?"
Obama said early in the conflict that Gadhafi "must leave" after turning against civilians to put down the armed rebellion. He said Monday that "there is no question that Libya — and the world — will be better off with Gadhafi out of power."
But a United Nations resolution, propelled by Arab League support, authorized military operations only to protect civilians, not to overthrow the government. Obama said he will "actively pursue" Gadhafi's ouster "through nonmilitary means," namely financial sanctions designed to pressure Gadhafi from office or turn his inner circle against him.
Obama's challenge Monday was to clearly spell out the U.S. interest in the war and define the limits of military involvement. He did so, in part, by criticizing the terms of the recent discussion, saying that "much of the debate in Washington has put forward a false choice" in Libya.
"It is true that America cannot use our military wherever repression occurs," Obama said. "And given the costs and risks of intervention, we must always measure our interests against the need for action. But that cannot be an argument for never acting on behalf of what's right."
Obama focused the address tightly on the Libyan conflict and devoted only a small portion of it to the swift changes unsettling the broader Middle East and North Africa. Popular uprisings have swept from power a pair of autocrats long allied with the United States in Egypt and Tunisia, and protests threaten a handful of others, from Syrian President Bashar Assad to King Hamad ibn Isa al-Khalifa of Bahrain.
But Obama said that, beyond the moral necessity of preventing a mass killing, a massacre in Libya would have put "enormous strains on the peaceful yet fragile transitions in Egypt and Tunisia."
"The democratic impulses that are dawning across the region would be eclipsed by the darkest form of dictatorship, as repressive leaders concluded that violence is the best strategy to cling to power," Obama said. "So while I will never minimize the costs involved in military action, I am convinced that a failure to act would have carried a far greater price for America."
Obama was also able to announce the transfer of the U.S. command of Operation Odyssey Dawn, as the campaign is known, to NATO, saying that the United States will move into a support role that will include providing intelligence, logistical support, search-and-rescue missions, and jamming government communications. It will also involve humanitarian assistance.
"The United States has done what we said we would do," Obama said. "That is not to say that our work is complete."
Many conservatives and some liberal interventionists worried that Obama was diminishing the United States' moral leadership, whether in promoting democracy or intervening to prevent a humanitarian crisis.
"Contrary to the claims of some, American leadership is not simply a matter of going it alone and bearing all the burden ourselves," Obama said, explicitly mentioning the George W. Bush administration's approach in Iraq. "Real leadership creates the conditions and coalitions for others to step up as well."