WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama defended American airstrikes in Libya in the narrowest possible terms on Monday, casting doubt on the likelihood of further U.S. military involvement in the Middle East tumult and acknowledging that Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi may be a long way from leaving power.
By far the most sweeping promise Obama spelled out in his evening address to the nation was that the U.S. under his leadership would never act entirely on its own in the world arena, risking American lives and treasure as it did by launching a war in Iraq in 2003.
“We should not be afraid to act, but the burden of action should not be America’s alone,” Obama said. “As we have in Libya, our task is instead to mobilize the international community for collective action.”
In a televised address, Obama said he authorized airstrikes in Libya under strict limitations: The nation had the “unique ability” to head off horrific violence without putting American troops on the ground, he said. The action came under an international mandate, in response to a call for help from the Libyan people and with the support of a broad coalition that included Arab countries.
What’s more, Obama said, the U.S. had an “important strategic interest” in preventing Gadhafi from overrunning the opposition forces, because a massacre would have driven thousands of refugees across the Libyan borders and put a strain both on the transition governments in Egypt and Tunisia and on American allies in Europe.
The criteria for U.S. involvement ended with a resounding pronouncement: that Americans won’t “turn a blind eye” on atrocities in other countries as long as taking action coincides with national interest.
“Given the costs and risks of intervention, we must always measure our interests against the need for action,” Obama said.
For days now, administration officials have been laying out the defense of the military campaign to different audiences. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates took to the airwaves over the weekend to make the case that the country has an interest in protecting its allies and promoting stability in the region.
White House officials have also begun rolling out an argument relying on the fact that there would be international cooperation on the effort.
But Obama’s remarks were aimed at an American public tired of ongoing war elsewhere and skeptical about the wisdom of the airstrikes.
Obama made clear what aides have been saying behind the scenes for days: that those looking for a promise of military aid to other countries should assume no precedent from the Libya intervention.
The U.S. doesn’t take action to adhere to precedent or to follow “consistency guidelines,” said deputy national security adviser Denis McDonough, but rather to advance the nation’s interests.
“Each of those interests is going to be unique in each instance,” he said.
Still, Obama emphasized that he “refused to wait for the images of slaughter and mass graves” before taking action against Gadhafi’s forces.
The White House deliberations on Libya have been haunted in part by the memory of Rwanda, where government forces in 1994 began a genocide that killed 800,000 people.
At the same time, administration officials point to a comparison in the Bosnian war, in which NATO intervened with limited airstrikes intended to prevent the slaughter of civilians.
The administration has insisted that no “doctrine” has emerged in the past 10 days, but that action will be considered on a country-by-country basis.
Obama pointed out that regime change in Iraq “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.”
Claiming success in Libya and directing U.S. forces into a “supporting role,” Obama said the U.S. nonetheless will continue to work to cut off the supply of arms and cash to the Gadhafi regime and to assist the opposition.
While refraining from openly criticizing Obama’s decision to dispatch military personnel to the region, some Republicans in Congress have criticized Obama for waiting several days before speaking publicly about the military action.
Others questioned how Obama could allow Gadhafi to remain in power and not use military force to oust him. As long as the Libyan leader remains in control, said Sen. John McCain, “he will increasingly pose a threat to the world and civilians in Libya will not be fully secure.”