March 28th, 2011
09:12 PM ET
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.