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“We Have Intervened to Stop a Massacre”: Obama Defends the U.S.-Led Military Action in Libya

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In his first major television address since ordering the bombing of Libya earlier this month, President Obama defended his decision, citing Libyan leader Col. Muammar Gaddafi’s repeated human rights violations, an international consensus for interventions, the revolutions sweeping the Middle East and North Africa, and the threat of a massacre in the Libyan rebel stronghold in Benghazi. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: President Obama has defended the U.S.-led attack on Libya with an appeal to what he called the national interest and a humanitarian duty to prevent atrocities overseas. In his first major address since ordering the bombing of Libya earlier this month, Obama cited Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi’s repeated human rights violations, an international consensus for interventions, the revolutions sweeping the Middle East and North Africa, and the threat of a massacre in the Libyan rebel stronghold of Benghazi. Obama also announced NATO will assume control of the attacks on Libya starting Wednesday.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: In just one month, the United States has worked with our international partners to mobilize 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. To lend some perspective on how rapidly this military and diplomatic response came together, when people were being brutalized in Bosnia in the 1990s, it took the international community more than a year to intervene with air power to protect civilians. It took us 31 days.

Moreover, we have accomplished these objectives consistent with the pledge that I made to the American people at the outset of our military operations. I said that America’s role would be limited and that we would not put ground troops into Libya, that we would focus our unique capabilities on the front end of the operation, and that we would transfer responsibility to our allies and partners. Tonight, we are fulfilling that pledge. Our most effective alliance, NATO, has taken command of the enforcement of the arms embargo and the no-fly zone. Last night, NATO decided to take on the additional responsibility of protecting Libyan civilians. This transfer from the United States to NATO will take place on Wednesday. Going forward, the lead in enforcing the no-fly zone and protecting civilians on the ground will transition to our allies and partners, and I am fully confident that our coalition will keep the pressure on Gaddafi’s remaining forces.

AMY GOODMAN: Despite President Obama’s touting of NATO’s role, it’s unclear how significant the transfer will be, since the U.S. is the dominant member of the military alliance. In his remarks, President Obama also invoked an expansive rationale for foreign intervention, saying the U.S. acted to prevent a massacre in Libya.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: It is true that America cannot use our military wherever repression occurs. And given the costs and risks of intervention, we must always measure our interests against the need for action. But that cannot be an argument for never acting on behalf of what’s right.

In this particular country, Libya, at this particular moment, we were faced with the prospect of violence on a horrific scale. We had a unique ability to stop that violence: an international mandate for action, a broad coalition prepared to join us, the support of Arab countries and a plea for help from the Libyan people themselves. We also had the ability to stop Gaddafi’s forces in their tracks without putting American troops on the ground.

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 refuse to wait for the images of slaughter and mass graves before taking action. We have intervened to stop a massacre.

And we will work with our allies and partners to maintain the safety of civilians. We will deny the regime arms, cut off its supplies of cash, assist the opposition, and work with other nations to hasten the day when Gaddafi leaves power. It may not happen overnight, as a badly weakened Gaddafi tries desperately to hang on to power. But it should be clear to those around Gaddafi, and to every Libyan, that history is not on Gaddafi’s side. With the time and space that we have provided for the Libyan, they will be able to determine their own destiny. And that is how it should be.

AMY GOODMAN: President Obama spoke as Libyan rebels continued to advance against the Gaddafi regime. The U.S.-led strikes have helped the rebels retake several cities and towns. The rebels and Gaddafi forces are now in an intense clash for Gaddafi’s home town of Sirte.

The fighting in Libya also comes amidst a wave of political upheaval across the Middle East and North Africa. But while a number of governments have committed violence against protesters, the Obama administration’s response has varied widely.

The U.S. has sharply condemned Syria, where state forces continue a brutal crackdown on demonstrators in the city of Daraa. On Monday, Syrian forces fired tear gas and live ammunition into a crowd of hundreds, dispersing a large rally. More than 60 people have died since protests erupted in Daraa 10 days ago.

Meanwhile, in Yemen the White House continues to tacitly support President Ali Abdullah Saleh, despite the deaths of dozens of people in the uprising against his over-30-year rule. The U.S. has also backed the Bahraini monarchy’s crackdown on an uprising that has killed around 20 people and injured dozens more. The response was the same in Egypt and Tunisia, where the U.S. backed two longtime presidents until popular protests forced them out of office.

We’re going to go to a break, and then when we come back, we’ll have a debate on U.S. intervention. This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. Back in a minute.

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A Debate on U.S. Military Intervention in Libya: Juan Cole v. Vijay Prashad

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