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NPR Reporters Analyze Obama's Speech


This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

This evening, President Obama went to the National Defense University, here in Washington, to defend the U.S. military role in Libya. The president addressed a range of concerns including the cost of the operation and the overall scope of the mission. Mostly, he made a broad case that America had to act in Libya because it was the right thing to do.

President BARACK OBAMA: To brush aside America's responsibility as a leader, and more profoundly our responsibilities to our fellow human beings under such circumstances, would've 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.

BLOCK: The president called the United States a country also born out of revolution, and he said the U.S. role as part of a NATO action gives Libyans the same chance that Americans once seized.

Pres. OBAMA: Wherever people long to be free, they will find a friend in the United States.

BLOCK: For some analysis of the president's speech, I'm joined now by NPR's Mara Liasson and Tom Gjelten. Welcome to you both.

TOM GJELTEN: Hi, Melissa.

BLOCK: And let's talk a bit about the Obama doctrine as it was articulated tonight. Tom Gjelten, what did you hear?

GJELTEN: "In this particular country, at this particular moment" - he laid out a very strong case, a humanitarian case, for why the United States had a moral responsibility to intervene in Libya in order to stop what he called a campaign of killing by Gadhafi's forces. But he also attached a string of conditions to that, ranging from the need for it to be international and also making clear that strategic interests also have to be involved. So that limits it. He says that we can't do this in every country and every time, but in this particular country at this particular moment.

BLOCK: Mara Liasson?

MARA LIASSON: Yeah, I think what the president laid out is pretty much in tune with what the American people are willing to support: a very limited mandate, not to get rid of Gadhafi himself, even though that is U.S. policy and that is what the president wants. He said in order to do that, we would've had to put U.S. troops on the ground, risk killing many civilians. He said, to be blunt, we went down that road in Iraq. In other words, he's not willing to, you know, bear any burden and pay any price. He is willing to work in concert with an international coalition to stop Gadhafi's deadly advance, in his words, and to give the Libyan people what he called the time and space to control their own destiny.

BLOCK: Which raises the question of what exactly happens with Moammar Gadhafi from here on. And President Obama, again, articulating a bit of a mixed message on this, it seemed to me, Tom, tonight saying, yes, Moammar Gadhafi must go but we're not putting troops on the ground to make that happen.

GJELTEN: Well, Melissa, he distinguished between military means and non-military means. But he did clearly commit the United States to a policy of getting rid of Gadhafi. He said, speaking here he's referring to non-military means: We will deny the regime arms, cut off its supply of cash, assist the opposition and work with other nations to hasten the day when Gadhafi leaves power.

Now that still stops short of what the British and French governments are saying, which is that Gadhafi must leave immediately. Nevertheless, he made it very clear that it is U.S. policy to work for the ouster of Gadhafi.

BLOCK: Mara Liasson, when you talk to folks at the White House, how do they view a scenario whereby Moammar Gadhafi would remain in power?

LIASSON: Well, that's clearly not their first choice. But the president seemed to be preparing the American people for just that situation. Tonight, he said it may not happen overnight, as a badly weakened Gadhafi tries desperately to hang on to power. But he said it should be clear to everyone that history is not on his side.

I mean, Gadhafi could hang on for a very long time. And I think that that is the risk the president faces. He - it'll look like he didn't achieve his goal in Libya. Now, clearly that is preferable to the White House than committing the resources and taking the risks of trying to get rid of Gadhafi by force.

BLOCK: Tom Gjelten - excuse me - let's talk a little bit about the future of the U.S. role in Libya. The president talked about turning command over to NATO as of Wednesday, and he outlined what the U.S. role will be as a supporting member of this coalition: intelligence, logistical support, search-and-rescue assistance, capabilities to jam regime communications. Does that mean no more U.S. airstrikes?

GJELTEN: Well, Melissa, there are basically four types of flights going on right now. There are airstrikes. The United States already is conducting less than half of the airstrikes. Other countries are carrying out the majority. No single country is carrying out as many as the United States is, but we've already seen a transition to other countries taking the lead as far as airstrikes are concerned. But there are also refueling flights, there are reconnaissance flights, and there are electronic warfare flights.

And in those three areas, the United States is almost doing all of the work, ranging from 80 percent of refueling flights, to 100 percent of electronic warfare flights. Those are the specialized niche capabilities that the United States has that other countries have a very hard time matching.

BLOCK: Mara Liasson, do you think there was enough in the president's speech tonight to silence his critics in Congress?

LIASSON: No. And judging from the statements that I've gotten in my email inbox from Republicans in Congress it - he still didn't say when this will end, he didn't resolve the contradiction between our policy of wanting Gadhafi out and our military mission of not having Gadhafi's ouster as a goal. I think he didn't answer all the criticisms, but I do think he did what he had to do.

He explained to the American people why we're there, and he described the limits on the mission. The American people, I think, are willing to support a limited mission, preferably of limited duration as well.

BLOCK: Any one line in the speech that jumps out at you, Tom Gjelten?

GJELTEN: Yeah, actually Melissa, I was struck that the president did not mince words about how difficult the road ahead is in Libya. He said, Gadhafi has not yet stepped down from power, and until he does, Libya will remain dangerous. Moreover, even after Gadhafi does leave power, 40 years of tyranny has left Libya fractured and without strong civil institutions.

That's not a very positive assessment of Libya's promise right now.

BLOCK: Mara Liasson, what about you? What was the phrase or sentiment here that really stuck with you?

LIASSON: Yeah, I think that that was one of them. Although, I do think that the president describing the way the United States of America is different - other nations can turn a blind eye to atrocity, the United States of America is different. I think that raises the bar very high and it's going to prompt some inevitable questions of why not do this kind of thing in other situations where brutal leaders, dictators are oppressing their own people.

BLOCK: And he did, Tom Gjelten, mention specifically the example of Bosnia. He also alluded to something else. He said, as president, I refuse to wait for the images of slaughter and mass graves before taking action. We may think there of Bosnia. We may also think of Rwanda, which of course was a case when the U.S. did not intervene.

GJELTEN: And of course, President Clinton quite publicly said that he was sorry that the United States had not intervened in Rwanda, after it became clear the scale of that tragedy. Let's - the president now, however, has to hope that he does not see scenes of slaughter in some other countries where the United States, right now, is not prepared to intervene.

BLOCK: NPR's Tom Gjelten and Mara Liasson. Thanks to you both.

GJELTEN: Thank you, Melissa.

LIASSON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.