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Obama's Libya speech: Did it outline where intervention is headed?

President Obama emphasized humanitarian goals in Libya and made it clear he wants the Qaddafi regime to fall. But he also insisted that regime change was not a goal of the coalition action, per se.

By Staff writer / March 29, 2011

President Barack Obama speaks about Libya at the National Defense University in Washington, Monday, March 28.

Charles Dharapak/AP

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President Obama in a Monday night speech to the nation explained at length why the US has intervened in Libya. But he was less clear about what might happen next in the Libyan conflict – and about how much force the US might use to help rebels in their campaign to oust Muammar Qaddafi.

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Mr. Obama emphasized that the Pentagon was turning over leadership of the coalition air campaign to NATO so as to share the costs and dangers of the operation with allies. But given that US forces constitute NATO’s backbone – the US pays for 22 percent of NATO’s budget – Libya now will remain a key theater for American military power for an indeterminate period of time to come.

Evidence of this is the Pentagon’s deployment to Libya of A-10 tank-killing aircraft and AC-130 gunships – weapons suited for grinding ground assault, as opposed to enforcement of a no-fly zone in the Libyan skies.

RELATED: Updated Libya timeline

“I welcome the President’s clarity that the US goal is for Qaddafi to leave power. But an equal amount of clarity is still required on how we will accomplish that goal,” said Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona, who has urged more forceful action in Libya, in a statement issued Monday night.

In his speech at the National Defense University in Washington, Obama began with an affirmation of American exceptionalism. The US plays a “unique role” as an “advocate for human freedom,” said the president.

It was in this spirit that he decided to order US participation in the Libya air assault after it became clear that Mr. Qaddafi would stop at nothing to retain his grip on power, Obama said.

“We knew that 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,” said Obama.

Answering critics who have said that coalition intervention would have been more effective if it had come sooner, Obama noted that it took a full year before the international community made a similar move to protect civilians in Bosnia during Bill Clinton’s presidency.

The results so far have been good, said the president: Qaddafi’s forces have been stopped.

“So for those who doubted our capacity to carry out this operation, I want to be clear: The United States of America has done what we said we would do,” Obama said.

The president made it clear that his goal is for the Qaddafi regime to fall. But he also insisted that regime change was not a goal of the coalition action, per se.

The US went down that road in Iraq, he said, and the cost in money and US lives was very high.

“That is not something we can afford to repeat in Libya,” said Obama.

As to what happens now, Obama underscored that NATO is taking over the operation, though whether Americans will accept this as proof that the US is stepping back is less than clear. He said the US will work with other nations to undermine Qaddafi.

He did not outline what targets US forces and their allies might attack going forward in their anti-Qaddafi campaign.

“The United States will not be able to dictate the pace and scope of this change. Only the people of the region can do that. But we can make a difference,” said Obama.

Following the speech, some critics said the overall effect of Obama’s presentation was not forceful enough.

Ex-Gov. Sarah Palin (R) of Alaska said on Fox News that “he did not articulate really what our purpose was except some inconsistent humanitarian effort there.”

Presumptive GOP presidential candidate and former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty argued that the coalition airstrikes should have begun sooner. “They were indecisive,” he said on CNBC.

But some analysts saw in the speech the outline of an Obama doctrine on the use of military force.

The US will intervene when it can and when massacres loom, Obama said. The responsibility of world leadership calls for no less, according to the president.

“Some nations may be able to turn a blind eye to atrocities in other countries. The United States of America is different,” said Obama.

Pointing to this statement, Duke University political science professor Peter Feaver said, “That is a fairly artful embrace of American exceptionalism and of the doctrine of preemption.”

Writing on the Foreign Policy magazine website, Professor Feaver said he detected “real passion” in Obama when he talked about the humanitarian purpose of the mission.

RELATED: Updated Libya timeline

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