WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama is striving to explain why the U.S. is at war again — on a third front — as he resolutely defends the military campaign in Libya. His message in a speech to the nation Monday night: U.S. involvement this time is shrinking and isn't a precedent for further action as violence flows across the Middle East.
Obama's address was unlikely to specify how long the conflict might last or what the cost might be to a nation all but buried in debt.
"Our involvement is going to be limited, both in time and in scope," Obama said at a town hall earlier in the day. He had said over the weekend that the United States and allies had prevented a humanitarian catastrophe by stepping in to keep Moammar Gadhafi from a potential mass killing of those rebelling against him.
"I firmly believe that when innocent people are being brutalized; when someone like Gadhafi threatens a bloodbath that could destabilize an entire region, and when the international community is prepared to come together to save many thousands of lives — then it's in our national interest to act," Obama said Saturday. "And it's our responsibility. This is one of those times."
Ahead of Obama's Monday night speech, the White House made clear that it does not view U.S. intervention in Libya as a precedent for involvement in other nations that hold strategic interest for the United States, from Syria to Bahrain to Yemen. Violent clashes are roiling the Middle East and North Africa.
"Each of them, frankly, is nationally motivated. It's not an international thing," said Deputy National Security Adviser Denis McDonough. "So we don't get very hung up on this question of precedent because we don't make decisions about questions like intervention based on consistency or precedent. We base them on how we can best advance our interests in the region."
For Obama, the speech offered an opportunity to make his points to skeptical lawmakers and a big television audience: why the U.S is involved in Libya, how the U.S.-led military campaign has progressed and what comes next.
Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, who was silent last week about the Libyan operation, said on the Senate floor that Obama has failed to explain the mission.
"If the American people are uncertain as to our military objectives in Libya, it's with good cause," the Kentucky lawmaker said. "The president has failed to explain up to this point what follows the evident establishment of a no-fly zone over Libya, as it was originally described. Further, the president has articulated a wider political objective of regime change in Libya that is not the stated objective of our military intervention; nor is it the mandate of the U.N. resolution that the president has used as a justification for our military efforts there."
Obama was giving the speech from the National Defense University at Fort McNair, not far from the White House. The university's mission is to train leaders of the armed forces and other civilian agencies for high-level policy and command responsibilities
Obama was expected to emphasize that although the United States led the military offensive against Gadhafi, NATO is in the midst of taking command of the operation — both enforcement of the no-fly zone over Libyan airspace and ground attacks.
The White House has been anxious from the start to get out of the lead position. The U.S.-led assault against Gadhafi's air defenses began on March 19.
Obama was also expected to reiterate that he will not send ground forces to Libya. The United States still has forces on the ground on two other long, costly war fronts, in Afghanistan and Iraq.
A central problem for the White House is that the Libya military effort is expressly not intended to achieve what Obama openly wants to see — Gadhafi's ouster. The United Nations Security Council resolution authorizing force speaks to protecting civilians but not regime change.
It was part of Obama's challenge to explain to the American public how the goals are not in conflict.
The White House insists it has other, longer-term ways with allies to pressure Gadhafi to leave. Left unclear is what happens if he does not.
The war was authorized by the United Nations as an intervention to save lives. But the airstrikes that reversed a government offensive have also empowered rebels seeking to overthrow Gadhafi to push toward the capital of Tripoli, raising questions about whether the campaign is overstepping its own bounds.
That question, too, hangs over Obama's speech.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, meanwhile, was heading to London to coordinate strategy Tuesday with top officials from NATO countries, as well as some nations outside the alliance.