Obama offers forceful defense of Libya action

President Obama speaks about military action in Libya during a speech at the National Defense University at Fort McNair, Washington, March 28, 2011. CBS

President Obama speaks about military action in Libya during a speech at the National Defense University at Fort McNair, Washington, March 28, 2011.
CBS
Having launched the military campaign in Libya while traveling to South America, President Obama went across town to the National Defense University in Washington Monday to address the American people on what the United States is doing in Libya.

Against criticism that he acted alone and without offering a clear mission or a clear exit, the president offered a systematic analysis of the situation on the ground in Libya and a defense of his actions.

President Obama, like the college professor he used to be, addressed his opponents' criticisms of him point by point.

He defended the military intervention, arguing that the international situation was ideal for U.S. involvement.

"It is true that America cannot use our military wherever repression occurs. And given the costs and risks of intervention, we must always measure our interests against the need for action. But that cannot be an argument for never acting on behalf of what's right," he said. "In this particular country - Libya; at this particular moment, we were faced with the prospect of violence on a horrific scale. We had a unique ability to stop that violence: an international mandate for action, a broad coalition prepared to join us, the support of Arab countries, and a plea for help from the Libyan people themselves. We also had the ability to stop Gaddafi's forces in their tracks without putting American troops on the ground. "

To those who say the US had no business getting involved in another conflict around the world, he said:

"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. 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".

Obama's Libya speech leaves GOP wanting

Countering critics who question why he committed military forces to enforce a United Nations backed no-fly-zone and ceasefire but not to support his own administration's policy goal of regime change in Libya, he said:

"Of course, there is no question that Libya - and the world - will be better off with Gaddafi out of power. I, along with many other world leaders, have embraced that goal, and will actively pursue it through non-military means. But broadening our military mission to include regime change would be a mistake."

He went even further, saying that the Iraq war was an example where regime change was a primary goal of the military campaign and one that was not settled quickly, easily, or without significant sacrifice.

"If we tried to overthrow Gaddafi by force, our coalition would splinter. We would likely have to put U.S. troops on the ground to accomplish that mission, or risk killing many civilians from the air. The dangers faced by our men and women in uniform would be far greater. So would the costs, and our share of the responsibility for what comes next. To be blunt, we went down that road in Iraq," he said.

And finally, Mr. Obama took the criticism of his would be replacements head-on. For weeks, many possible Republican presidential contenders have suggested that the current president's decision to work with the international community unnecessarily delayed action and showed that he didn't think of the United States as a world leader.

He hit back at that criticism Monday. 

"Contrary to the claims of some, American leadership is not simply a matter of going it alone and bearing all of the burden ourselves," he said. "Real leadership creates the conditions and coalitions for others to step up as well; to work with allies and partners so that they bear their share of the burden and pay their share of the costs; and to see that the principles of justice and human dignity are upheld by all."

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Obama's remarks on Libya (full transcript)


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    Robert Hendin is senior producer for "Face the Nation" and a CBS News senior political producer.

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