March 28th, 2011
09:12 PM ET

Obama makes his case for U.S. intervention in Libya

WASHINGTON (CNN) - President Barack Obama made his case Monday night for intervention in Libya, addressing the nation amid tough calls for him to clarify the United States' role in the U.N.-authorized military mission.

Both Democrats and Republicans have criticized the president's policy in the war-torn North African nation. Among other things, they have questioned the purpose of the mission, as well as its cost, endgame, and consequences for the broader Arab world.

"It was not in our national interest" to let the citizens of Benghazi suffer a massacre at the hands of Gadhafi's forces, said Obama. It would have "stained the conscience of the world," he said, referring to Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi.

He added that he ordered U.S. warships into the Mediterranean off Libya because of Gadhafi's "brutal repression" of his people and "a looming humanitarian crisis."

The transfer from U.S. to NATO command will take place Wednesday, Obama said.

Obama's address at the National Defense University in Washington was meant "to update the American people on the situation in Libya, including the actions we've taken with allies and partners to protect the Libyan people from the brutality of Moammar Gadhafi, the transition to NATO command and control, and our policy going forward," the White House announced Sunday.

The president has said that U.S. policy is the ouster of Gadhafi.  However, the mandate of the military coalition is only to enforce a no-fly zone and arms embargo in Libya while taking other necessary steps to protect civilians.

"If the American people are uncertain as to our military objectives in Libya, it's with good cause," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, said Monday afternoon.

"What national security interest of the United States justified the risk of American life?" McConnell asked.  "What is the role of our country in Libya's ongoing civil war?"

Obama may have several objectives in Monday night's speech, but first and foremost he needs to help an exhausted public understand why the United States needed to intervene in Libya, according to presidential historian Doris Kearns Goodwin.

"The majority of the American people are overwhelmed by a whole series of crises," Goodwin told CNN's "American Morning" on Monday.  "They have to understand the reasoning that brought him into this military intervention.  And I think he needs to tell a story to trace the events from the time of the protests in Libya up through the push back by Gadhafi."

The president, Goodwin said, needs to explain the fear of an imminent humanitarian crisis and why he assembled a coalition as opposed to pursuing a unilateral course of action.

Obama also needs to explain "why he didn't act quicker (and) why he didn't get to the Congress" for its approval.

"Tell us the story of why he did what he did, and make us believe his leadership did it the right way," she said.

Obama also needs to prepare the public for a potential long-term engagement, Goodwin warned.

Ousting Gadhafi "may take time, and I think (the president) has to warn us," she said.  "This may take months even (though the) no-fly zone was achieved in an incredibly short period of time."

Nick Ragone, a presidential communications expert, noted that Obama is addressing the public later than most presidents do when they commit to military action.  Obama needs to "fill in the blanks" and "tell a story," he said.

"Typically in the presidency, there's a narrative to decisions, an arc," Ragone told CNN.  "He needs to give a little of that narrative" dating back to the start of the protests in neighboring Tunisia and Egypt.

"I don't think this speech is about rhetorical flourishes," Ragone said.  "I don't think it needs to hit the high notes we expect."  He just "needs to explain why he did what he did."

But Adam Sheingate, a Johns Hopkins political science professor, said he doesn't believe Monday's speech is "make-or-break" for Obama.

It "is more to ease the concerns of his critics than the public as a whole," he said.  "I just don't think the broader public is that concerned" about the war in Libya.

"There's not a great deal of political fallout" at the moment for Obama, Sheingate asserted.  But that could change if there are U.S. military casualties, he warned.

Should Obama have addressed the nation sooner?

"With 20/20 hindsight, it probably would have been better giving (an earlier) speech announcing the U.S. was giving assistance to avert a humanitarian crisis," Sheingate said.  But in terms of politics, addressing the issue later is "not a grievous mistake of any kind.  Events are still unfolding."

Ultimately, the president's speech may have little impact on public opinion on the war, according to John Sides, a George Washington University political science professor.

"Presidential speeches hardly ever move public opinion," Sides told CNN.  "People vastly overestimate the power of the bully pulpit."

Americans who pay close attention to presidential addresses tend to already have their minds made up, Sides said.

Generally speaking, people take their cues from opinion leaders such as top members of Congress, he noted.

Seventy percent of Americans favored the establishment of a no-fly zone over Libya in a March 18-20 CNN/Opinion Research Corporation poll.  Fifty-four percent favored air strikes against Gadhafi's forces, while 43% were opposed.

Obama is "not facing a very hostile public on this issue," Sides said.  While people are not overwhelmingly supportive of the air strikes - a possible reflection of the questions being raised on Capitol Hill and elsewhere - they're also not heavily engaged.  And air strikes are a less risky form of intervention than ground combat, he noted.

Two senior Obama Cabinet members - Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Defense Secretary Robert Gates - appeared on talk shows Sunday to make the case for the administration's policy.

Both Clinton and Levin emphasized that the international support was essential to avoid any perception or accusation that the United States - already engaged in wars in Iraq and Afghanistan - was unilaterally committing military forces in a third Muslim country.

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who is expected to announce his candidacy soon for the Republican presidential nomination, challenged such an approach, telling "Fox News Sunday" he wants Obama's speech to be "dramatically clearer than he has been up until now."

"I hope the president will say, first of all he is consulting the U.S. Congress, not just the Arab League and United Nations," Gingrich said. "I hope he will say second that it's clear that the Gadhafi dictatorship has to leave, and that we are prepared to do whatever it takes to make sure the Gadhafi dictatorship leaves."

Despite his tough rhetoric, Gingrich made clear he opposes sending any U.S. ground troops to Libya - a position also held by Obama.

"Once you engage air power, you should use the air power in its most effective way," Gingrich said. "You don't need to send in ground forces."

Sen. Richard Lugar of Indiana, the ranking Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee, criticized a lack of congressional debate before Obama committed military forces to the Libyan mission.

"There should have been a plan as to what our objectives were, a debate, before we committed armed resources," Lugar told the NBC program "Meet the Press," later adding: "I don't believe we should be engaged in the Libyan civil war. I think the Libyans are going to have to work that out."

Obama has said the U.S. role in the Libyan mission will diminish once NATO takes over control and command, which could start happening as soon as Monday. However, Gates made clear that even in a diminished role, U.S. forces will still be involved in the mission as long as it continues.

"As long as there is a no-fly zone and we have some unique capabilities to bring to bear - for example, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, some tanking aviation - we will continue to have a presence," he said on ABC.

CNN's Tom Cohen, Alan Silverleib, and Gabriella Schwarz contributed to this story.


Topics: Libya • President Obama • The News

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soundoff (12 Responses)
  1. Judson Johnson

    Obama is answerable to the full US Congress PRIOR to any military engagement, not to the UN Security Council or NATO. Regardless of circumstances, this is an impeachable offense.

    March 28, 2011 at 11:15 pm |
    • Jacob Eli

      Right...Yet no one wanted to impeach bush when he started two ILLEGAL wars over LIES, while draining the country dry. Not an obama fan by any means..but he's OUR president..DEAL WITH IT.

      March 29, 2011 at 2:16 am |
  2. tony miller

    If Obama has a birth Cert. he needs to show it. Sending military to Libya should be done by an american not an illedal alien with no green card

    March 29, 2011 at 12:11 am |
    • tony miller

      illegal alien

      March 29, 2011 at 12:12 am |
      • Nia

        Those warehouses shluod have been taken OUT!First, our bumbler in Chief hands hundreds, maybe thousands of guns to Mexican drug cartels, now more dangerous inept idiocy from this administration. These dolts are so far over their head it is frightening. How many of these missiles will walk' across our wide open boarder? How many terrorists are going to be sitting in boats off our coasts shooting down passenger planes??How many more deadly mistakes will this idiot make before he is run out of our White House on a rail (hopefully straight into a jail cell)?

        July 31, 2012 at 4:18 am |
      • Noel

        new regime? OMG! Farrakhan was right? How sad for you, Ivan. LOLSo an alpoogy owed for vigiliante justice ? Gee.. let's examine that, shall we? Ivan cheerleading vigilante killings. Check Ivan says it's a wonderful thing, and just hunky dory. Check .What does his link say? We had already launched an investigation. We have issued a code of ethics in handling of prisoners of war. There were some violations by those who are unfortunately described as revolutionaries. I am sure that was an individual act [Mata Musing: code for "international scapegoat"] and not an act of revolutionaries or the national army, the top interim official said. [Mata Musing: I guess we missed all the others, trying desperately to stop him...] We had issued a statement saying that any violations of human rights will be investigated by the NTC. Whoever is responsible for that (Kadhafi's killing) will be judged and given a fair trial. snip Until now, the NTC had adamantly claimed that Kadhafi was killed in crossfire after he was captured in Sirte, his hometown and final bastion.Disquiet has grown internationally over how Kadhafi met his end after NTC fighters hauled him out of a culvert where he was hiding following NATO air strikes on the convoy in which he had been trying to flee his falling hometown.hummm Until now . Disquiet has grown internationally uh .No thanks to Ivan. Thanks, however, to voices like Drj, Aye, myself and others here at FA (but not Ivan), Hillary, the Brits, the UN, and dare I say it Farrakhan.But no thanks to Ivan.What about the others executed in the mass graves? Will their killers be brought to Libyan justice? Or only Gaddafi matters? How equal of justice is that, Ivan? Will that same individual take responsibility for the other hundreds?Who is owed the alpoogy, Ivan? Who said that holding such a view was tantamount to unAmerican? And why is an alpoogy owed to rebel units, committing war crimes on Gaddafi and others in the mass graves?ooopsMe? INRE the trial ? Think I'll wait to find out if it's a kangaroo court. You may now resume your whining. It's not like we aren't all used to it.Reply

        August 1, 2012 at 11:33 pm |
    • Notfooled

      He did show it. He is an American and Commander in Chief so he can send the military. Period.

      April 2, 2011 at 5:12 am |
  3. williefloyd

    Some days it takes a strong stomach to read some of the idiotic comments on this site. Birthers and those who think a pres. who taught constitutional law doesn't know what to do and how to do it-ridiculous.

    March 29, 2011 at 6:50 pm |
  4. Liz Carter in Georgia

    Yes, it does take a strong stomach, a cool head, for me a whole lot of BIBLE reading, to remind myself of how good has always been diminished by evil. GOOD (JESUS CHRIST) himself was killed by EVIL! PRES OBAMA is far from a JESUS THE MESSIAH, the principle is the same; the status quo remains. OBAMA, whom I believe is a GOOD man, was elected to do a good thing for the nation; he was elected to revamp the economy, get jobs back to the people; healthcare for all; bring us back into good standing to the world.

    March 30, 2011 at 9:13 am |
    • Geovanny

      privately to the arab leadership, just wait and watch what I do to Israel..Obama thnkis he will be re-elected, and now has told the Palestinians that he can't address the Palestinian Statehood issue until AFTER the 2012 elections he knows that to to speak up for them against Israel NOW would lose him massive votes at the polls..This man is the most dangerous president America has ever had, he is a threat to world stability and our western civilization, and the damage he has wrought is so irretrievable that we now live in a very unsafe world both here and abroad..

      July 31, 2012 at 5:41 am |
  5. Liz Carter in Georgia

    Repubated, hate-ridden minds, evil against what could and should be good!

    March 30, 2011 at 9:22 am |