Libya Crisis Would've Echoed 'Across The Region'

President Obama explained his Libya policy in an address Monday night. He said the military assault on Libya was in America's national interest but that U.S. involvement would be limited. What the president didn't provide was what members of Congress have been asking for: A clear picture of how the Libya campaign will end and when.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning, Im Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And Im Renee Montagne. And, Steve, welcome to NPR West here in Culver City.

INSKEEP: Oh, delighted to be here. Delighted.

MONTAGNE: President Obama spent his televised address last night explaining the complexities of intervention in Libya.

INSKEEP: The president faced a range of critics on the left and the right. Some have questioned the goals. Some have asked for an end strategy. And some have even asked if the U.S. is repeating the mistakes of Iraq.

MONTAGNE: Those were the questions. And now let's hear the president's answers. Here is NPR's national political correspondent Mara Liasson.

MARA LIASSON: President Obama never called the military operation in Libya a war. And he chose not to give his speech from the Oval Office, the traditional venue for an American president announcing military action. Instead, Mr. Obama went to the National Defense University at Fort McNair, where he told the country that the U.S. intervened to prevent an imminent humanitarian crisis.

President BARACK OBAMA: If we waited one more day, Benghazi, a city nearly the size of Charlotte, 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.

LIASSON: But the president laid out more than a moral rationale for military action. He said the U.S. had strategic interests at stake in the region that would be damaged, if Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi was allowed to slaughter his opposition.

President OBAMA: A massacre would have driven thousands of additional refugees across Libyas borders, putting enormous strains on the peaceful, yet fragile transitions in Egypt and Tunisia. 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.

LIASSON: Tomorrow, the U.S. will hand over formal control of the arms embargo, no-fly zones, and the mission of protecting Libyan civilians to NATO. And last night, President Obama described that as a kind of mission accomplished in itself - the United States had, quote, "done what we said we would do."

President OBAMA: I said that Americas role would be limited; that we would not put ground troops into Libya; that we would focus our unique capabilities on the front end of the operation and that we would transfer responsibility to our allies and partners. Tonight, we are fulfilling that pledge.

LIASSON: What the president didn't provide last night was what members of Congress from both parties have been asking for, a clear picture of how the Libyan campaign will end and when. Instead, Mr. Obama seemed to be steeling Americans for a long and perhaps indecisive period in Libya.

President OBAMA: Gadhafi has not yet stepped down from power, and until he does, Libya will remain dangerous. Moreover, even after Gadhafi does leave power, 40 years of tyranny has left Libya fractured and without strong civil institutions. The transition to a legitimate government that is responsive to the Libyan people will be a difficult task.

LIASSON: That's a downbeat but realistic picture of Libya's future. Even as the president was promising to assist the opposition, administration officials admit they are still trying to figure out exactly who the rebels are.

As for getting rid of Gadhafi, the president has decided that using military means to remove him directly is not worth the risk. Regime change is still administration policy, but the president said if we tried to overthrow Gadhafi by force our coalition would splinter, and we would have to put U.S. troops on the ground.

President OBAMA: 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.

LIASSON: The White House resists using the term but, little by little, an Obama Doctrine is coming into focus. Unless the American homeland or core interests are threatened, this doctrine says any U.S. military involvements must follow international mandates and multilateral coalitions. Real leadership, the president said last night, creates the conditions for others to bear their share of the burden.

The limited mission the president laid out - with all its ambiguities and unanswered questions - may not satisfy his critics in Congress. But it's probably the only kind of military campaign the American people are willing to support, while the U.S. remains involved in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Mara Liasson, NPR News, Washington.

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