WASHINGTON — To a nation and a Congress seeking answers, President Barack Obama on Monday will offer his most expansive explanation of the U.S. role in the Libyan war, delivering a speech that is expected to cover the path ahead and his rationale about the appropriate use of force.
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Obama’s 7:30 p.m. EDT speech, to be given from the National Defense University in Washington, comes as leading Republican lawmakers and some from his own party have pressed him for clarity about the goals and exit strategy of the United States. Obama and top U.S. security officials spent about an hour talking to lawmakers on Friday, with the president answering direct questions from critics.
For a president who was on a Latin American outreach trip when the U.N.-sanctioned military assault on the Libyan regime began, the speech offers him his best chance to explain the purpose and scope of the mission to a nation already weary of war. Obama has spoken about the matter since authorizing the use of force, but not in a setting as prominent as an evening speech, as he seeks to take command of the story.
Obama is expected to explain how the U.S.-led campaign is shifting to NATO control, and how the multinational approach with Arab support puts the United States in the strongest position to achieve the goals of protecting Libyan civilians, a White House official said.
The president will also put the Libyan campaign into a broader context of his decisions about the use of force, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the president’s thinking. U.S.-led forces began launching missile strikes last Saturday against embattled Libyan strongman Moammar Gadhafi’s defenses to establish a no-fly zone and prevent him from attacking his own people.
With the Obama administration eager to take a back seat, it remained unclear when NATO would assume command of the no-fly patrols. Also unclear was when – and even if – the U.S. military’s Africa Command would hand off to NATO the lead role in attacking Libyan ground targets.
The U.S. commander in charge of the overall international mission, Army Gen. Carter Ham, told The Associated Press, “We could easily destroy all the regime forces that are in Ajdabiya,” but the city itself would be destroyed in the process. “We’d be killing the very people that we’re charged with protecting.”
Instead, the focus is on disrupting the communications and supply lines that allow Gadhafi’s forces to keep fighting in Ajdabiya and other urban areas like Misrata, Ham said in a telephone interview from his U.S. Africa Command headquarters in Stuttgart, Germany.
The White House announcement of Monday’s speech came after Obama’s teleconference Friday with a bipartisan group of key members of Congress. The call came amid complaints on Capitol Hill that Obama was not adequately consulting about the intervention in Libya with Capitol Hill.
During the call, Obama and other U.S. officials emphasized to lawmakers that the United States’ military role would be decreasing going forward, according to an official who listened to the conversation and spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the closed meeting.
Obama reiterated the U.S. position that Gadhafi should leave power. But he said, as he has publicly, that the United States planned to follow the mission of the UN Security Council resolution – which centers on the protection of Libyan civilians. The campaign is not aimed at killing Gadhafi, the official said.
House Speaker John Boehner asked a series of questions and got direct answers from both the president and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen, the official said. The president also took questions from the Senate’s top Republican, Mitch McConnell, and from other lawmakers.
After the call, a spokesman for Boehner said the speaker wants the Obama administration to do more to explain how the mission in Libya “is consistent with U.S. policy goals.”
And Sen. John McCain of Arizona, who also participated in the call, remained concerned that the current military action might not be enough force Gadhafi out of power, spokeswoman Brooke Buchanan said.
Buchanan said McCain, the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, supports the military intervention in Libya but fears it could lead to a stalemate that leaves Gadhafi’s regime in place.
Obama also faced political pressure from his own party, with one prominent Democrat expressing reservations about the wisdom of continuing the military mission.
“I know the president carefully weighed all the options before taking this emergency action but now that our military has prevented an immediate disaster, I have very serious concerns about what this intervention means for our country in the coming weeks,” Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., said.
Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., gave Obama a strong endorsement after speaking with the president and his advisers.
“The president gave a very clear, very strong presentation,” Levin said. “I continue to believe there will be strong bipartisan support in Congress. He clearly answered the questions about the mission and planned schedule for the handoff of the principal responsibility for population protection to NATO and Arab countries.”
Meanwhile, a Pentagon official said Friday that even as other nations begin taking a larger role in the international air assault mission in Libya, the Pentagon was considering adding Air Force gunships and other attack aircraft that are better suited for tangling with Libyan ground forces in contested urban areas like Misrata.
Navy Vice Adm. William Gortney told a Pentagon news conference that for the second consecutive day, all air missions to enforce a no-fly zone over Libya were flown by non-U.S. aircraft, and U.S. planes conducted about half the missions attacking Libyan air defenses, missile sites and ground forces. Qatar became the first Arab nation to join the effort, flying F-16s in support of the no-fly zone.
“The division of labor between the U.S. and our partners has largely evened out,” Gortney said.
In his interview with the Associated Press, Ham said the U.S. expects NATO will take command of the no-fly zone mission on Sunday, with a Canadian three-star general, Charles Bouchard, in charge. Bouchard would report to an American admiral, Samuel Locklear, in Locklear’s role as commander of NATO’s Allied Joint Force Command Naples, Ham said.
If NATO also decides to take on a wider mission broadly defined by the United Nations Security Council as protecting Libyan civilians from their own government – a mission that is currently carried out under U.S. command – then Bouchard might command that effort, too, Ham said.
In announcing on Thursday that NATO had agreed to take on the no-fly zone mission, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said the campaign was evolving in line with Obama’s plan to limit U.S. involvement.
“We’re already seeing a significant reduction in the number of U.S. planes involved in operations as the number of planes from other countries increases in numbers,” she said.
Gortney, however, said there has been no reduction in the number of American planes participating. In fact, he said the Pentagon was considering bringing in side-firing AC-130 gunships, helicopters and armed drone aircraft that could challenge Libyan ground forces that threaten civilians in cities like Misrata. The U.S. has avoided attacking in cities thus far out of fear that civilians could be killed or injured. AC-130 gunships, which operate at night at low altitude, can attack with unusual precision.
Gortney is staff director for the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
NATO’s governing body, the North Atlantic Council, is expected to meet again on Sunday to revisit whether the alliance will take command of the rest of the Libya operation, including the protection of civilians.