Barack Obama defends US military intervention in Libya
US president gives speech to nation claiming US action has saved 'countless lives' – but rules out targeting Gaddafi
- The Guardian,
- Article history
Barack Obama has addressed the American people on TV and said that military intervention by America had prevented a massacre in Libya.
The US president also called on those people still loyal to Muammar Gaddafi to desert him, and said that the end of the Libyan leader's rule was inevitable.
"We will deny the regime arms, cut off its supply of cash, assist the opposition, and work with other nations to hasten the day when Gaddafi leaves power," Obama said.
"It may not happen overnight, as a badly weakened Gaddafi tries desperately to hang on to power. But it should be clear to those around Gadaffi, and to every Libyan, that history is not on his side."
Obama had previously said that he wanted Gaddafi to leave power, even though such a goal appears to exceed the mandate of the UN resolution authoring a no-fly zone and the protection of civilians.
But Obama did say that the coalition would not target Gaddafi, and that regime change by armed force – especially by American ground troops – was not an aim. "To be blunt, we went down that road in Iraq. 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," he said.
Instead Obama sought to justify the military attacks on Gaddafi's army by saying there was no doubt that a massacre of opposition forces and civilians had been prevented.
Obama pulled no punches in detailing what he believed would have happened had the rebel stronghold of Benghazi fallen into loyalist hands.
"Gaddafi 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 a thousand people in a single day. 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 declared.
The powerful language of Obama's speech was used in part to explain to the American public why the US is now involved in a third conflict in a Muslim country. The setting of the address – the National Defence University in Washington – was also a clear part of Obama's communication strategy. Normally when American presidents speak to the nation they use the Oval Office.
Obama has come in for a barrage of criticism from Republicans and some Democrats for a perceived slowness to speak clearly and publicly about why American forces are involved in Libya. Critics have accused him of not setting out concrete objectives and failing to justify another military intervention in the Muslim world.
Obama's own administration has appeared somewhat divided on the issue.
While Hillary Clinton, the secretary of state, has pushed for military action, others – like Pentagon chief Robert Gates – have seemed more reluctant.
On Sunday, Gates gave a television interview in which he said he did not think Libya was a "vital interest" to America. But during Obama's speech Gates was seated in the front row, perhaps as an attempt to show a unity of purpose.
Obama's speech sought to address the complexity of the changes sweeping through the Arab world. Some critics have wondered why military force has been used in Libya but not in other states, such as Syria, Yemen and Bahrain, where government crackdowns have cost scores of lives.
Obama said the US could not use its military in every situation, and would always seek to build and lead coalitions rather than act unilaterally. But, verbally at least, he signalled that his administration will embrace change across the region and those who espouse democratic ideals.
"The United States will not be able to dictate the pace and scope of this change. Only the people of the region can do that. But we can make a difference. I believe that this movement of change cannot be turned back, and that we must stand alongside those who believe in the same core principles that have guided us through many storms," he said.