As President Obama gave the American people his justification for intervening in Libya and described a narrower role for the nation, the U.S. military has been carrying out an expansive and increasingly potent air campaign against Moammar Gadhafi.
President Obama on Monday declared the U.S.-led military intervention in Libya a success, saying it averted a massacre by longtime leader Moammar Gadhafi and that NATO’s takeover of the multilateral mission this week means the United States can shift quickly to a support role with less risk and cost.
“Tonight, I can report that we have stopped Gadhafi’s deadly advance,” Obama said in an address designed to respond to criticism that he hasn’t explained the goals for U.S. involvement sufficiently. “The United States of America has done what we said we would do.”
Even as the president described a narrower role for the nation in Libya, the U.S. military has been carrying out an expansive and increasingly potent air campaign to compel the Libyan army to turn against Gadhafi.
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The Obama administration has been reluctant to call the operation a war, seeking instead to emphasize involvement of a dozen other countries, particularly Italy, Britain and France. Obama, as he has in the past, portrayed the mission as a limited one and described the U.S. role as “supporting.”
But interviews in recent days offer a fuller picture of U.S. involvement, and show it is far deeper than discussed in public and more instrumental to the fight than previously known.
From the air, the United States is supplying much more firepower than any other country, with U.S. bombing missions increasing to 107 Sunday, from 49 Thursday. The U.S. military also is taking the lead role in gathering intelligence, intercepting Libyan radio transmissions, for instance, and using the information to orchestrate attacks against Libyan forces.
The U.S. military over the weekend launched its first missions with AC-130 flying gunships and A-10 attack aircraft designed to strike enemy ground troops and supply convoys.
Use of the aircraft, during days of heavy fighting in which the momentum seemed to swing in favor of the rebels, demonstrated how allied military forces have been drawn deeper into the chaotic fight in Libya. A mission that initially seemed to revolve around establishing a no-fly zone has become focused on halting advances by government ground forces in and around key coastal cities.
AC-130s, armed with heavy machine guns and cannons that rake the ground, allow strikes on dug-in ground forces and convoys in closer proximity to civilians.
The planes are being used to step up pressure on Libyan ground troops who have retreated from the rebels’ advance and fortified around several cities east of Tripoli, the capital.
Still, Vice Adm. William Gortney, director of the Pentagon’s Joint Staff, emphasized that the military was not using the planes to facilitate a rebel advance.
Military officials consider AC-130s and A-10s well-suited to attacks in built-up areas, although their use has led to civilian deaths. Unlike fighter jets and bombers, which typically carry 500- or 1,000-pound bombs, AC-130s and A-10s deliver more discriminate but still devastating machine-gun fire.
AC-130s were used to great effect during the two U.S. offensives in Fallujah, a stronghold of the insurgent group al-Qaida in Iraq in the early days of the Iraq war. In Afghanistan, the military considers them particularly effective against entrenched militants, and commanders have complained frequently that they are in too short supply.
The AC-130s, which are flying from a base in Italy, were requested by Gen. Carter Ham, the senior U.S. general overseeing the battle, and are likely to continue flying over Libya in coming days as allied forces attempt to increase the pressure on Gadhafi’s ground forces.
Allied aircraft also are using psychological operations to try to break their will to fight, broadcasting messages in Arabic and English, telling Libyan soldiers and sailors to abandon their posts and go back to their homes and families, and to defy Gadhafi’s orders.
In his 27-minute speech, Obama made two parallel cases: first, that doing nothing would have run counter to U.S. ideals and national interests; and second, that to have acted alone or expanded the military mission to topple Gadhafi would have been too costly and repeated the mistakes of the Iraq war.
Obama said America had a moral imperative in preventing Gadhafi from inflicting “a massacre” on his people.
Comparing Libya’s largest rebel-held city to the U.S. city that will host the 2012 Democratic National Convention, Obama said, “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.”
He said there also was a strategic U.S. interest in blocking the Libyan leader. Otherwise, the fragile democracy movements in Tunisia, Egypt and across the Arab world would be endangered, as tyrants would draw the lesson that “violence is the best strategy to cling to power.”
“It is true that America cannot use our military wherever repression occurs,” Obama said. “But that cannot be an argument for never acting on behalf of what’s right.”
Still, the president didn’t explain why that logic doesn’t require intervention against tyrannical repression recently employed in Syria, Bahrain and Yemen, except to say circumstances in Libya were unique.
“In this particular country — Libya,” Obama said, “we had a unique ability to stop that violence: an international mandate for action, a broad coalition 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 Gadhafi’s forces in their tracks without putting American troops on the ground.”
Obama aimed to clarify his goals for two specific audiences: average Americans, and insider elites including Congress, the military and foreign governments. Obama’s speech came on the eve of an international conference in London to discuss Libya’s future.
A poll released Monday by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center underscored the U.S. public’s lack of clarity about the mission — 50 percent of Americans said U.S. and allied goals aren’t sufficiently clear. But more Americans favor U.S. involvement in Libyan airstrikes than oppose it, 47 percent to 36 percent, according to the survey, conducted March 24-27.
Perhaps equally telling, however, is that most Americans aren’t all that focused on Libya. In a month overloaded with the Japanese natural disasters and nuclear crisis, multiple Middle East revolutions and the March Madness college-basketball playoffs, only 15 percent said Libya was the news event they’re following closest.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, reacted with a mix of praise and criticism to Obama’s remarks.
“I welcome the president’s clarity that the U.S. goal is for Gadhafi to leave power,” McCain said in a statement. “But an equal amount of clarity is still required on how we will accomplish that goal.”
Some Republicans were just critical. Georgia Rep. Tom Price, chairman of the House Republican Policy Committee, said NATO’s new lead role offers “no assurance that American military men and women as well as American resources will not continue to play a very large part in the days to come.”
Several Democrats lauded Obama’s speech. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., stood firmly behind the president.
But in the House, where many liberal Democrats are uncomfortable with the intervention, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., chose her words carefully. She said she salutes the U.S. military but emphasized that “U.S. actions in Libya will be strengthened by continued consultation with Congress.”
Compiled from McClatchy Newspapers, The Washington Post and The New York Times