SANTIAGO, Chile | President Obama said Monday that the U.S. is acting under the authority of the U.N. Security Council in the air and missile attacks on Libya and that while he believes Col. Moammar Gadhafi should leave office, the current mission is limited to stopping a humanitarian crisis.
"The core principle that has to be upheld here is that when the entire international community, almost unanimously, says there's a potential humanitarian crisis about to take place … that we can't simply stand by with empty words, that we have to take some sort of action," Mr. Obama said at a joint news conference in Santiago with Chilean President Sebastian Pinera.
The conference marked the first time since the attacks began Saturday that Mr. Obama faced questions about the action, and he laid out a broad justification based on an international consensus that the situation was deteriorating too rapidly to wait for more deliberation.
Mr. Obama said the U.S. is taking the lead in the attacks with the goal of "taking out Libyan air defenses" so that an eventual no-fly zone can be imposed against the forces of Col. Gadhafi. Mr. Obama said it will be a matter of "days" before that first phase is completed, and the U.S. turns over leadership to others.
He also contrasted the current effort with past military operations "when the United States acted unilaterally or did not have full international support."
On Monday afternoon, Mr. Obama sent a letter to congressional leaders officially notifying them of the military action and saying it is "in the national security and foreign policy interests of the United States, pursuant to my constitutional authority to conduct U.S. foreign relations and as commander in chief and chief executive."
He also stressed that the U.S. was acting in compliance with U.N. Security Council resolution 1973, which he mentioned five times in the two-page letter.
For weeks, Libyan rebels have been fighting against government forces, but have suffered setbacks in recent days as Col. Gadhafi's air power proved overwhelming. After Col. Gadhafi promised to root out the rebels wherever he found them, Mr. Obama and other international leaders said they feared a humanitarian catastrophe.
Last week, the Security Council passed the resolution urging the world to act to avert such a crisis, and Mr. Obama said that's the authority the U.S. is acting under. He said the goal of the military operation is not to oust Col. Gadhafi contradicting what some other members of the international coalition have said but said the U.S. has other tools to achieve that end, such as freezing his assets.
Some members of Congress have criticized Mr. Obama for acting without first getting authorization from them. They said he is violating the Constitution, which gives Congress the power to declare war, and his own campaign stance in 2007, when he said the president can act unilaterally only if it's to defend the U.S. from an actual attack.
White House National Security Adviser Tom Donilon told reporters this weekend that the administration "welcomes the support of Congress in whatever form that they want to express that support," but said the limited scope of the operation already falls within the president's powers to act independently.
Mr. Obama said he has consulted with lawmakers and told them of his plans last Friday a day before he left for a five-day, three-country trip to South America. He was in Brazil when he gave final approval for the attacks.
"We were working on very short time-frames, and we had done all the work, and it was just a matter of seeing how Gadhafi would react to the warning I issued on Friday," Mr. Obama said when asked how he felt about making the decision while on another country's soil.
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