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Brutality in Libya required swift action, Obama says

Vows US will reduce role in coming days

In his address last night, President Obama said the United States has a moral obligation to support freedom but use military force only in the most dire circumstances. In his address last night, President Obama said the United States has a moral obligation to support freedom but use military force only in the most dire circumstances. (Dennis Brack-Pool/ Getty Images)
By Donovan Slack and Farah Stockman
Globe Staff / March 29, 2011

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WASHINGTON — US attacks on Libya are essential to prevent Moammar Khadafy from slaughtering his citizens and destabilizing a vital region, President Obama asserted last night in an address that sought to clarify the mission’s goals and counter concerns its beginning was clumsily executed and its end is uncertain.

The barbarity of Khadafy’s forces and the scope of his threats demanded immediate action, the president said, hinting that there was little time for a full congressional debate and approval.

“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,’’ Obama said. “It was not in our national interest to let that happen. I refused to let that happen.’’

The president said the United States is about to significantly reduce its role in the operation, which includes patrols of the no-fly zone and airstrikes to prevent attacks on civilians, and transfer command to NATO officials tomorrow.

Obama also sought to place the Libyan engagement within the broader context of other recent uprisings in the Arab world, saying the United States has a moral obligation to support freedom but would use military force only in the most dire circumstances, with broad international support.

“Sometimes, the course of history poses challenges that threaten our common humanity and common security,’’ he said, ticking off the need to respond to genocide and natural disasters as examples. “These may not be America’s problems alone, but they are important to us, and they are problems worth solving.’’

Failing to act, he said, would have emboldened other repressive leaders in the region to use violence to stay in power.

The president, however, insisted the mission should not be broadened to include ousting Khadafy. Obama said he would work toward that goal but only by using nonmilitary means.

“If we tried to overthrow Khadafy by force, our coalition would splinter,’’ he said, adding that costs would multiply and be borne by the US alone. “To be blunt, we went down that road in Iraq.’’

The swift Libyan intervention — which marks the first time Obama has ordered US troops into a new conflict — is considered a key test of his presidency and a moment that allowed him to delineate his most comprehensive vision yet for America’s role in the world and the role of the military abroad.

“He laid the beginnings of an Obama doctrine,’’ said Stephen Flanagan, a national security specialist at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “He said that there are instances where our safety is not immediately threatened but our interests and values are, and in those cases . . . we will act, particularly when we can act with a broad international coalition.’’

Some members of Congress from both sides of the aisle, including from the heavily Democratic Massachusetts delegation, have criticized the president for failing to receive congressional approval and provide a clear goal and exit strategy for the mission. Last night, Representative Michael Capuano, a Somerville Democrat, showed no signs of softening his stance.

“It was, as always, a good speech and well presented, but it was nothing new and nothing I didn’t already know,’’ he said. “What is our policy moving forward?’’

House Speaker John Boehner, Republican of Ohio, also thought the speech had holes. “Nine days into this military intervention, Americans still have no answer to the fundamental question: What does success in Libya look like?’’ Boehner spokesman Michael Steel said in a statement.

Capuano said the White House has spent too much time building a coalition with foreign leaders and not enough time building a consensus with Congress and the American public.

“Apparently he got every duck in a row, except the United States,’’ he said.

Political specialists say the long-term effect of Libya on the Obama presidency depends on what happens next.

If Khadafy and his regime are gone in a month, replaced by a democratic government sympathetic to the United States, the president could take credit for a strategic and political victory, said Tom Kelly, professor emeritus of history and American studies at Siena College in New York.

But if the conflict drags on and fails to stop Khadafy from attacking civilians, it would be a resounding defeat and more fodder for Obama critics. “It’s simply a question of how it plays out,’’ Kelly said.

Richard Eichenberg, a political science professor at Tufts, said Obama’s actions on Libya echoed President Clinton’s reluctant intervention to stop the atrocities in Kosovo after he had vowed to focus on strengthening the economy.

“Clinton almost failed,’’ Eichenberg said. “He had to bomb the Serbs for 60 days. He thought it was going to be over much sooner.’’

Clinton’s ratings fell as refugees poured out of Kosovo and the Serbs held their ground. But months later, as UN peacekeepers took over and the operation looked like a success, his popularity surged, Eichenberg said.

Obama last night used an earlier UN intervention in the Balkans as a guidepost to highlight how in only one month the United States and its allies were able to mobilize and prevent a massacre in Libya.

“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,’’ Obama said.

Tom Malinowski, who wrote speeches for Clinton during the Kosovo engagement, agreed Obama acted quickly in Libya.

“This was probably the fastest military response to an impending human rights crisis in history,’’ said Malinowski, now Washington director for Human Rights Watch. “I think it says that despite his enormous sensitivity to America’s domestic troubles and the message that he gets every day from his base that he needs to focus on domestic concerns, he remains committed to a vision of America playing a larger role in the world.’’

Material from Bloomberg News was used in this report. Slack can be reached at dslack@globe.com, Stockman at fstockman@globe.com.

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