WASHINGTON — U.S. military actions in Libya are being conducted as part of a broad multinational coalition and in direct support of a United Nations mandate designed to set conditions for other coalition partners to play larger roles enforcing the no-fly zone there, President Barack Obama said today.
Obama told reporters in Santiago, Chile, that he directed Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Navy Adm. Mike Mullen to move forward with military action only after it became clear that his warnings to Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi had fallen on deaf ears.
“He, despite words to the contrary, was continuing to act aggressively toward civilians,” Obama said. “After consulting with our allies, we decided to move forward.”
The United States played a larger role during the initial phases of the operation only because it had capabilities particularly well-suited to taking out Gadhafi’s air defenses, the president said. “That ... shapes the environment in which a no-fly zone can actually be effective,” he explained.
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Fast action also helped to stop advances on Benghazi and sent “a clear message to Gadhafi that he needed to start pulling his troops back,” the president said.
More European nations and Arab League members will step forward during the next phase of the operation to enforce a no-fly zone over Libya.
“There is going to be a transition taking place in which we are one of the partners among many who are going to ensure that no-fly zone is enforced, and the human protection that needs to be provided continues to be in place,” Obama said.
The manner in which the United States took leadership of the initial thrust and set the stage for other nations to participate “ensures international legitimacy and ensures that ... members of the international coalition are bearing the burden of following through on the mission as well,” he said.
Recognizing that the U.S. military is “already very stretched,” Obama welcomed the international cooperation being demonstrated during Operation Odyssey Dawn.
“Whenever possible for us to get international cooperation — not just in terms of words, but also in terms of planes and pilots and resources, that is something we should actively seek and embrace,” he said. “It relieves the burden on our military, and it relieves the burden on U.S. taxpayers to fulfill what is an international mission and not simply a U.S. mission.”
While not specifically mentioning any particular mission, Obama referred to past operations in which the United States acted unilaterally or with limited international support and ended up carrying the bulk of the burden alone.
Obama said he finds it “very easy to square our military actions and our stated policies” concerning Libya.
“Our military action is in support of an international mandate from the Security Council that specifically focuses on the humanitarian threat posed by Colonel Gadhafi to his people,” he said, noting that Gadhafi was murdering civilians and threatening to “show no mercy” to those in Benghazi.
“In the face of that, the international community rallied and said, ‘We have to stop any potential atrocities inside Libya’ and provided a broad mandate to accomplish that specific task,” Obama said.
“The core principle that has to be upheld here is that when the entire international community almost unanimously says that there is a potential humanitarian crisis about to take place, that a leader who has lost his legitimacy decides to turn his military on his own people, that we can’t simply stand by with empty words,” he said. “We have to take some sort of action.”
U.S. policy recognizes that “Gadhafi needs to go,” the president said, noting “a wide range of tools in addition to our military efforts to support that policy.”
The United States was quick to impose unilateral sanctions against Libya and to mobilize international sanctions against the Gadhafi regime, he noted. This included freezing assets Gadhafi might use to empower himself, purchase weapons or hire mercenaries to direct against the Libyan people.
“So there are a whole range of policies that we are putting in place that has created one of the most powerful international consensuses around the isolation of Mr. Gadhafi,” Obama said. “And we will continue to pursue those.”
Meanwhile, the United States will continue to provide military support to enforce U.N. Security Council Resolution 1973’s humanitarian focus, he said. “We are going to make sure we stick to that mandate,” he added.
The president said he is particularly proud of the way the U.S. military has carried out the initial thrust.
“It is a testament to the men and women in uniform who, when they are given a mission, they execute and do an outstanding job,” he said.