In his defense, President Obama and members of his administration have given public statements on Libya every day since the U.N. resolution authorizing a no-fly zone was first imposed. But until Monday night, the president had yet to deliver a prime-time address on the subject, a lapse that only became more glaring as people from all quarters asked: Why the silence?
Speaking before military personnel at Washington, D.C.'s National Defense University, Obama explained his decision for ordering military action in Libya, why he thinks it's in our national interest and what the plan is going forward. Here are his clarifications (albeit indirectly and not always complete) on frequently asked questions hovering over the mission.
1. Why did you take so long to do something?
"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. To lend some perspective on how rapidly this military and diplomatic response came together — when people were being brutalized in Bosnia in the 1990s, it took the international community more than a year to intervene with air power to protect civilians. It took us 31 days."
2. How do you rationalize your failure to consult Congress first?
"Nine days ago, after consulting the bipartisan leadership of Congress, I authorized military action to stop the killing and enforce U.N. Security Council Resolution 1973."
(NOTE: Yeah … he didn't spend time on this argument. However, administration officials have pointed to the Senate resolution that passed by unanimous consent on March 1, urging the U.N. to enforce a no-fly zone in Libya. This was incorporated into the U.N. resolution, so Obama's going out on a limb here by calling it congressional consultation.)
3. Why intervene in Libya over other countries with dictators who also brutalize their own people?
"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 Qaddafi's forces in their tracks without putting American troops on the ground."
4. What's our military exit strategy?
"Our most effective alliance, NATO, has taken command of the enforcement of the arms embargo and no-fly zone. Last night NATO decided to take on the additional responsibility of protecting Libyan civilians. This transfer from the United States to NATO will take place on Wednesday.
Going forward, the lead in enforcing the no-fly zone and protecting civilians on the ground will transition to our allies and partners, and I am fully confident that our coalition will keep the pressure on Qaddafi's remaining forces. In that effort, the United States will play a supporting role — including intelligence, logistical support, search and rescue assistance, and capabilities to jam regime communications."
5. What's the goal, exactly — to oust Qaddafi from power, or just enforce a no-fly zone and protect civilians?
"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 U.N. mandate and international support. 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. 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. Thanks to the extraordinary sacrifices of our troops and the determination of our diplomats, we are hopeful about Iraq's future. But regime change there took eight years, thousands of American and Iraqi lives, and nearly a trillion dollars. That is not something we can afford to repeat in Libya."
6. How is intervening in America's interest?
"America has an important strategic interest in preventing 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. 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.
The writ of the U.N. Security Council would have been shown to be little more than empty words, crippling its future credibility to uphold global peace and security. So while I will never minimize the costs involved in military action, I am convinced that a failure to act in Libya would have carried a far greater price for America."
7. How do you square winning a Nobel Peace Prize with launching military strikes in Libya?
"Sometimes the course of history poses challenges that threaten our common humanity and common security — responding to natural disasters, for example; or preventing genocide and keeping the peace; ensuring regional security; and maintaining the flow of commerce. These may not be America's problems alone, but they are important to us, and they are problems worth solving. And in these circumstances, we know that the United States, as the world's most powerful nation, will often be called upon to help.
" … Let us also remember that for generations, we have done the hard work of protecting our own people, as well as millions around the globe. We have done so because we know that our own future is safer and brighter if more of mankind can live with the bright light of freedom and dignity."
I think the president did a good job of answering "Why Libya?" and making a case for it from both a strategic and a moral perspective. He also, however, left a lot of loose ends on how long we'll be there if Qaddafi doesn't fall anytime soon, as well as what happens after the mission ends, and unconvincingly tried to play it both ways on his definition of the end game.
I doubt he won over the many people across the political spectrum who fiercely oppose his decision — but at least he communicated clearly with the nation why he handled it this way, what his plan is for the immediate future and where he stands on America's leadership in the world.
Cynthia Gordy is the Washington reporter for The Root.