WASHINGTON -- In his first nationally televised speech since U.S. and other international forces intervened militarily in Libya, President Barack Obama has defended his decision, saying action by the United States and its allies prevented a massacre that would have “stained the conscience of the world.”
Obama also cited an "important strategic interest in preventing Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi from overrunning those who oppose him."
"A massacre would have driven thousands of additional refugees across Libya's borders, putting enormous strains on the peaceful -- yet fragile -- transitions in Egypt and Tunisia," Obama said. "The democratic impulses that are dawning across the region would be eclipsed by the darkest form of dictatorship, as repressive leaders concluded that violence is the best strategy to cling to power."
Saying he refused "to wait for the images of slaughter and mass graves before taking action," Obama said he and Washington's allies decided to act after giving Qaddafi a chance to stop his brutal attacks on opposition forces and civilians.
In response, Obama said, Qaddafi had escalated his attacks. "We knew that if we waited one more day, Benghazi -- a city [of 700,000 people]-- could suffer a massacre that would have reverberated across the region and stained the conscience of the world. It was not in our national interest to let that happen. I refused to let that happen."
He characterized the North African leader as a “tyrant” who has “denied his people freedom, exploited their wealth, murdered opponents at home and abroad, and terrorized innocent people around the world -- including Americans.”
"Tonight," Obama said, "I can report that we have stopped Qaddafi's deadly advance.”
A week-and-a-half of air strikes and a no-fly zone have turned the tide in favor of the opposition, who were depleted and nearly defeated by pro-government forces before the allies intervened.
In a reminder of the uncertain road ahead, Navy Vice Admiral Bill Gortney, director of the U.S. military's Joint Chiefs Of Staff, said in the wake of Obama's speech that Libya's anti-Qaddafi forces were neither "robust" nor well organized. He called their recent gains on the battlefield "tenuous."
"Clearly, the opposition is not well organized and it is not a very robust organization -- I mean, that's obvious," Gortney said. "So any gain that they make is tenuous, based on that. I mean, it's -- clearly, they're achieving a benefit from the actions that we're taking. We're not coordinating with them."
Gortney said the United States had not been directly supporting the Libyan rebels but rather seeking to enforce the United Nations resolution calling for the protection of Libyan civilians.
Not At War
The setting for Obama's speech was the National Defense University in Washington -- a military venue that carried symbolic importance and, significantly, wasn't the Oval Office, which is where U.S. presidents traditionally address the nation after they have ordered U.S. military forces into action, usually a war.
Obama emphasized that his decisions on Libya were based on what has become his foreign-policy doctrine -- one that relies on international consensus and multilateral action to bring about desired change.
"In just one month, the United States has worked with our international partners to mobilize a broad coalition, secure an international mandate to protect civilians, stop an advancing army, prevent a massacre, and establish a no-fly zone with our allies and partners," Obama said.
He noted that during the Bosnian war of the 1990s, "When people were being brutalized, it took the international community more than a year to intervene with air power to protect civilians."
As he spoke to a country already fighting two wars, Obama was keen to stress that he has delivered on his original pledge of only involving U.S. military forces in a limited way and transferring lead command of the operation within "days, not weeks."
Indeed, he announced that NATO will assume control of the fast-moving mission on March 30, while the United States will play a supporting role that involves intelligence, search-and-rescue, and radar-jamming operations.
Obama spoke on the eve of a major international conference in London, which Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will attend, aimed at starting diplomatic efforts to force Qadaffi to step down.
The conference begins today and will include foreign ministers from more than 35 countries, including Turkey, as well as the top officials from NATO, the United Nations, the Arab League, and the African Union.
Obama chose to address the American public after coming in for criticism from both major political parties in Congress for not consulting lawmakers adequately before deciding to support the UN resolution to impose a no-fly zone over the country in the face of increasingly brutal attacks on opposition forces and civilians.
A new poll also shows that less than a majority of Americans think it was the right decision to intervene military. The Pew Research Center poll found that 47 percent of people think it was, and 36 percent think it was not. Almost the same number -- 46 percent -- think the United States and its allies should work to remove Qaddafi from power, while 43 percent say protecting civilians should be the only goal.
But Obama firmly rejected the idea that the United States would abet the violent overthrow of Qaddafi, despite acknowledging that "there is no question that Libya – and the world -- will be better off with Qaddafi out of power."
Drawing comparisons to Iraq and the U.S.-led overthrow of Saddam Hussein, Obama said, "To be blunt, we went down that road." Regime change there, the U.S. leader said, "took eight years, thousands of American and Iraqi lives, and nearly a trillion dollars."
"That is not something [the United States] can afford to repeat in Libya," he said.
"Broadening our military mission to include regime change would be a mistake. The task that I assigned our forces -- to protect the Libyan people from immediate danger, and to establish a no-fly zone -- carries with it a UN mandate and international support," Obama said. "It is also what the Libyan opposition asked us to do. If we tried to overthrow Qaddafi by force, our coalition would splinter. We would likely have to put U.S. troops on the ground, or risk killing many civilians from the air."
Instead, Obama said the United States and its NATO allies "will deny the regime arms, cut off its supply of cash, assist the opposition, and work with other nations to hasten the day when Qaddafi leaves power."
Two Arab leaders have already been forced from power by popular revolutions this winter, and several more are trying to quell citizen unrest in an historic few months that some observers have dubbed the "Arab Spring."
Obama closed his speech by pulling the focus back from events in Libya and widening it out to the revolts spreading throughout the wider Arab world. Throughout the region, he said, "a new generation is refusing to be denied their rights and opportunities any longer."
From Syria to Jordan, Bahrain to Yemen, citizens are expressing frustration at deeply entrenched regimes and a lack of democratic and other reforms.
But Obama cautioned that "progress will be uneven, and change will come differently in different countries."
In places like Egypt, Obama said, "change will inspire us and raise our hopes." But in Iran, "where change is fiercely suppressed," he added, "the dark forces of civil conflict and sectarian war will have to be averted, and difficult political and economic concerns addressed."
"The United States will not be able to dictate the pace and scope of this change," Obama said. "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."
with additional contributions from RFE/RL's Central Newsroom