A DEFIANT President Barack Obama today said he had stopped a “massacre” in Libya, but warned trying to oust Muammar Gaddafi by force could repeat the carnage of Iraq.
“As president, I refused to wait for the images of slaughter and mass graves before taking action,” Obama said, mounting a robust defence of his decision to rain air strikes on Gaddafi’s troops in a UN-mandated bid to protect civilians.
Obama spoke after Libyan rebels, enabled by pounding air attacks by international fighter jets, grabbed back government-held territory, and on the eve of a major international conference in London dedicated to Libya’s future.
The president, in a major televised address at the National Defence University in Washington, also denied he had ceded leadership to US allies and had failed to lay out a clear strategy for war-weary Americans.
“In just one month, the United States has worked with our international partners to mobilise 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,” Obama said.
Faced with a man who compared his people to “rats” and who had hanged “civilians in the streets,” Obama said he had seen no choice but to act against Gaddafi’s forces as they bore down on the key city of Benghazi.
He said the city could have suffered “a massacre that would have reverberated across the region and stained the conscience of the world.”
“I refused to let that happen,” said Obama, who came to power vowing to get US troops home from Iraq and eventually Afghanistan, but has found himself launching a new military adventure abroad on his own watch.
“To brush aside America’s responsibility as a leader – and more profoundly – our responsibilities to our fellow human beings … would have been a betrayal of who were are,” he said.
The president said US “interests and values” were at stake in the crisis, in an apparent response to those who question whether Libya represents a vital threat to the US.
Obama did not, however, sketch an end game for the conflict, as critics warn that he may have taken sides in an intractable Middle Eastern civil war, and fear a blow to US credibility unless Gaddafi is ousted.
He made clear he wants Gaddafi gone, but warned that pursuing a military quest for regime change would backfire and exact a terrible price.
“If we tried to overthrow Gaddafi by force, our coalition would splinter.
“We would likely have to put US troops on the ground, or risk killing many civilians from the air.
“To be blunt, we went down that road in Iraq.
“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.”
Top international powers including Britain and France meet in London today to assess the success of the coalition effort against Gaddafi and to consider how to oust the long-time leader with non-military means.
Before making his speech, Obama spoke by videoconference with the leaders of France, Britain and Germany to review the progress made by the coalition, White House spokesman Jay Carney said.
The US and its partners have levied punishing financial and diplomatic sanctions on the Libyan regime, seized billions of dollars in assets and are policing an arms embargo.
Obama said a “badly weakened” Gaddafi could hang on for some time, saying Libya would remain “dangerous” with him still around.
But he warned Gaddafi was on the wrong side of history.
“The transition to a government that is responsive to the Libyan people will be a difficult task,” Obama said, adding that it was up to the international community to join the US in a rebuilding effort.
The president also sought to explain his criteria for committing US power abroad, as analysts seek an “Obama doctrine” as revolt sweeps the Middle East.
He said he would never shrink from using force decisively and unilaterally if the US homeland was threatened, but said America could also deploy its military in situations when it was not at risk, for instance to prevent genocide.
But he said he would seek the support of allies in such cases, telling Americans who have seen a decade of war: “The burden of action should not be America’s alone.”
Obama’s speech was partly an answer to a storm of criticism in recent days, especially from lawmakers who argued they were not fully consulted on the Libyan operation.
Republican Senator John McCain welcomed Obama’s explanation of the US intervention in Libya, but said his comment that regime change by force was not on the table was “puzzling.”
“Gaddafi must have been somewhat comforted by that,” Obama’s 2008 general election foe told CNN.