March 29, 2011— -- President Obama reasserted America's responsibility as a world leader to prevent atrocities Monday as he defended intervention in Libya amid critics concerned with the cost of military action and involvement in another war.
"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. 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," he said during a speech at the National Defense University in Washington, D.C.
The president said military actions launched by the U.S.-led international coalition was crucial and necessary to stop Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi, who is accused of using violence against his own people.
Protests against Gadhafi, who has been in power for more than 40 years, began last month.
"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."
Obama's remarks come during what seems to be a major shift in Libya – with rebels, aided by the U.S. and European-engineered no-fly zone and bombing of Gadhafi's strongholds, have advanced on Gadhafi's hometown and reclaimed two critical oil-producing areas.
U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice said on "Good Morning America" today that there is no indication that Gadhafi is prepared to step down which is why efforts to squeeze out his resources continue.
While Secretary of State Hillary Clinton along with other world leaders will gather in London to discuss the country's future.
Obama Takes on Critics
While Obama said America's security was not threatened, the country's "interests and values" were at risk.
In response to 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 a reason for inaction.
"Mindful of the risks and costs of military action, we are naturally reluctant to use force to solve the world's many challenges," he said. "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."
For more from inside Libya, click here. Recent polls show that Americans generally support the military operations in Libya, but they're looking to the president to address the many unanswered questions about what's next.
Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin said she found Obama's speech "profoundly disappointing because it proved that the Obama doctrine is still full of chaos and questions," in an interview with Fox News' Greta Van Susteren.
Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio, has been a vocal critic of any U.S. involvement in operations in Libya.
"People have to understand that we're sacrificing our domestic agenda here," he said. "Things are falling apart at home while we're searching the world, looking for dragons to slay."
But 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.
Americans are particularly leery after nearly a decade of military engagement in Iraq and Afghanistan. Budget watchers say the first week of bombing and air support in Libya cost more than $600 million.
"If the American people are uncertain as to our military objectives in Libya, it is with good cause," said Sen. Mitch McConnell, the top Republican in the Senate on Monday. "The president has failed to explain up to this point what follows the evident establishment of a no-fly zone over Libya as it was originally described. Further, the president has articulated a wider political objective of regime change in Libya. That is not the stated objective of our military intervention, nor is it the mandate of the UN resolution that the president has used as a justification for our military efforts there."
NATO to Take Command
NATO is set to take over command of the operation, but the Americans Navy and Air Force are still very much involved enforcing a no-fly zone over Libya.
The full transfer of command to NATO will be complete in several days.
But Defense Secretary Robert Gates would not give a firm deadline for just how long U.S. involvement would last. "Will the mission be over by the end of the year?" he was asked by ABC's Jake Tapper on Sunday."I don't think anybody knows the answer to that," Gates said.
Establishing the no-fly zone is described as a humanitarian effort, authorized by the United Nations Security Council, to keep Gadhafi from slaughtering rebels who hope to push him out of power.
"Imagine we were sitting here and tens of thousands of people had been slaughtered. The cries would be, 'Why did the United States not do anything?'" said Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on ABC's "This Week" Sunday.
But the aim of the U.S. is not just to keep Gadhafi's give the rebels a fighting chance. At the same time, President Obama said Gadhafi must leave power. The distinction between avoiding a slaughter of civilians and working to oust him has created a great deal of confusion about what the U.S. and its European allies are trying to accomplish.
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."
However, no one expects Gadhafi to be ousted from power easily.
The American general who has overseen much of the bombing against Gadhafi's forces urged the rebels to slow down or they might be "destroyed."
"Among my concerns right now is that the opposition will overreach in their haste to move west. They are not a match for the regime forces. If they move hastily and get destroyed, then there's nothing to stop regime from moving right back down the coast road," Gen. Carter Ham told ABC's Martha Raddatz.
ABC News' Jake Tapper and the Associated Press contributed to this report.