- The Washington Times - Monday, March 28, 2011

President Obama said Monday that a U.S.-led coalition has staved off a humanitarian disaster at the hands of Col. Moammar Gadhafi, has stopped his troops’ “deadly advance” toward rebel positions, and will turn over control this week to NATO, which is broadening its mission to include protecting civilians on the ground.

Speaking 10 days after the attack began and with confusion still reigning over the U.S. role and its objectives in the war-torn country, the president said that if he had waited “one more day,” Libyan rebels could have suffered a “massacre that would have reverberated across the region and stained the conscience of the world.”

Laying out the U.S. interest in intervening, Mr. Obama said that stopping Col. Gadhafi’s advance prevented a refugee crisis that could have overwhelmed the democratic movements shaking many Middle Eastern countries. He said American power, technology and leadership had to be part of the solution.

“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,” Mr. Obama said in an evening address at Washington’s National Defense University.

“Some nations may be able to turn a blind eye to atrocities in other countries. The United States of America is different. And as president, I refused to wait for the images of slaughter and mass graves before taking action,” he said.

The remarks were Mr. Obama’s first live, substantive comments since he returned from a five-day trip to Latin America. He was in Brazil on March 19, the day he authorized the strikes and two days after the U.N. Security Council approved a no-fly zone over the country to protect rebels against whom Col. Gadhafi had promised “no mercy.”

Aided by the strikes, the rebels Monday pushed beyond the eastern regions they already controlled and took the city of Nawfaliyah. The rebels were advancing toward the Libyan leader’s birthplace of Sirte, located about 90 miles west along the Mediterranean coast, but media reports said pro-Gadhafi reinforcements had halted the rebels’ push.

The 6-week-old Libyan uprising followed successful and largely peaceful protests in the neighboring countries of Tunisia and Egypt. An accurate death toll is hard to come by; Amnesty International this month said it’s clear that “hundreds have died” since the conflict began.

Some members of Congress fear the U.S. could get dragged into an open-ended conflict, but Mr. Obama said the operation is limited in duration and scope, and pointed to the fact that NATO is taking over operational control of the mission, dubbed Odyssey Dawn.

On Tuesday, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton will meet in London with British Prime Minister David Cameron, French President Nicolas Sarkozy and other allies involved in the operation to discuss diplomatic efforts to force Col. Gadhafi from power.

“We will work with our allies and partners, as they’re in the lead to maintain the safety of civilians,” Mr. Obama said. “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 Gadhafi leaves power. It may not happen overnight, as a badly weakened Gadhafi tries desperately to hang on to power. But it should be clear to those around Gadhafi, and to every Libyan, that history is not on his side.”

The U.S. will formally transfer control of the operation to NATO on Wednesday - a milestone that Mr. Obama said fulfills the pledge he made at the outset of the attacks that America’s role would be limited and no ground troops would be deployed.

Mr. Obama said he still thinks Col. Gadhafi should be ousted, but said that’s not a mission of the international coalition. He said such a move could “splinter” the consensus that now exists to back the no-fly zone.

Mr. Obama has taken flak from members of Congress on both sides of the aisle who said they weren’t consulted adequately ahead of time. They described communications from the White House ahead of the strikes as more of a notification than a conversation, and many lawmakers also have demanded to know the costs of U.S. air and naval strikes, which Mr. Obama said can be covered with existing budget funds.

The president did not provide any detailed or even rough cost estimate Monday, saying only that the burden would be shared by the U.S. and its partners.

Polls suggest the public is divided. A Pew survey released Monday showed that 47 percent of Americans said Mr. Obama’s decision to authorize airstrikes was the right thing to do, while 36 percent opposed it. Seventeen percent had no opinion.

“I’m concerned, and I know many Americans are concerned, that tonight we didn’t get a clear and accurate accounting from the president on how much this conflict in Libya is going to cost American taxpayers,” said Rep. Bruce L. Braley, Iowa Democrat. “We’ve got two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan - and Americans deserve to hear from our president what this third conflict is going to cost us.”

The White House says such questions are legitimate, and Mr. Obama on Friday hosted a one-hour teleconference with a bipartisan group of lawmakers. Top officials, including Mrs. Clinton and Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, are scheduled to brief members of the House on Wednesday.

Mr. Obama has found supporters on Capitol Hill.

Rep. Duncan D. Hunter, California Republican, and Marine combat veteran who served tours of duty in Afghanistan and Iraq, said the president made the right choice in attacking Libya to impose a no-fly zone.

“President Barack Obama made a decision that is consistent with his role as commander-in-chief - in fact, a judgment that conformed to calls from lawmakers on both sides of the aisle,” Mr. Hunter wrote in an op-ed column in the San Diego Union-Tribune this weekend.

On Monday night, Mr. Obama went against tradition in forgoing the Oval Office - the backdrop from which presidents routinely discuss military action - in favor of the National Defense University, a Pentagon-funded higher-education facility in the District.

White House officials said the venue choice was about highlighting the contributions of the U.S. military and not about downplaying the significance of the conflict in Libya.

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