President Obama defended U.S. military involvement in Libya this evening as a necessary humanitarian intervention, acknowledging that while America's security was not threatened, U.S. "interests and values" were at stake.
"Mindful of the risks and costs of military action, we are naturally reluctant to use force to solve the world's many challenges," the president said in remarks at the National Defense University in Washington, D.C.
"But when our interests and values are at stake, we have a responsibility to act. That is what happened in Libya over the course of these last six weeks."
The president said military operations launched by the U.S.-led international coalition as necessary to stop Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi, whom the president labeled a "tyrant" that launched violence against his own people.
"Innocent people were targeted for killing. Hospitals and ambulances were attacked," the president said. "Journalists were arrested, sexually assaulted, and killed. Supplies of food and fuel were choked off."
Taking on critics who have said that the United States should not use military intervention or "police the world," Obama acknowledged that the American military cannot be deployed "wherever repression occurs"
But he said that cannot be an argument for inaction.
"To brush aside America's responsibility as a leader and – more profoundly – our responsibilities to our fellow human beings under such circumstances would have been a betrayal of who we are," he said. "Some nations may be able to turn a blind eye to atrocities in other countries. The United States of America is different. And as President, I refused to wait for the images of slaughter and mass graves before taking action."
To critics who have argued that Obama and the international coalition should be doing more to bring down Gadhafi, the president said broadening the mission to include "regime change" would be a mistake.
"To be blunt, we went down that road in Iraq," he said. "[R]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."
Obama said that in just 10 days his administration has fulfilled its pledge to the American people to keep a limited role for the U.S. military by focusing "unique capabilities on the front end of the operation" and then transferring responsibility to international allies.
The president outlined the buildup to the military intervention earlier this month and gave a status report on what has happened in the past 10 days, declaring the efforts a success.
But when it came to a timetable for U.S. involvement, he provided no specifics. "Going forward, the lead in enforcing the no-fly zone and protecting civilians on the ground will transition to our allies and partners," he said. "I want to be clear: The United States of America has done what we said we would do. That is not to say that our work is complete."
Acknowledging that Americans have questions about the endgame in Libya, Obama said the United States will help transition to a "legitimate government" but that, ultimately, it is a task for the international community and the Libyan people.