President Barack Obama leads a briefing on the current situation in Libya with National Security Advisor Tom Donilon, foreground, and Chief of Staff Bill Daley during a secure conference call aboard Air Force One on the flight from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, to Santiago, Chile, March 21, 2011. Taking part in the call are Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen, Secretary of Defense Bob Gates, and AFRICOM Commander General Carter Ham. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
Here’s the president’s answers regarding Libya during the press conference in Chile today:
Q. Mr. President, Senor Presidente, muchas gracias. Sir, how do you square your position that Colonel Qaddafi has lost legitimacy and must go against the limited objective of this campaign, which does not demand his removal? If Colonel Qaddafi is killing his own people, is it permissible to let him stay in power? And if I may add, do you have any regret, sir, about undertaking this mission while you’re on foreign soil? And do you have the support of the Arab people in this yet?
PRESIDENT OBAMA: Okay. First of all, I think I’m going to embarrass Jim by letting everyone know that Jim’s mother is Chilean, and so this is a little bit of a homecoming. You were born in Chile, am I right?
Q Yes, sir. It’s a delight to be here. Thank you.
PRESIDENT OBAMA: Fantastic. So I thought everybody should know that. And also, I think that for all the Chilean press, you don’t need to take Jim’s example by asking three questions, pretending it’s one. (Laughter.)
Q One subject.
PRESIDENT OBAMA: First of all, I think it’s very easy to square our military actions and our stated policies. Our military action is in support of a international mandate from the Security Council that specifically focuses on the humanitarian threat posed by Colonel Qaddafi to his people. Not only was he carrying out murders of civilians but he threatened more. He said very specifically, we will show no mercy to people who lived in Benghazi.
And in the face of that, the international community rallied and said we have to stop any potential atrocities inside of Libya, and provided a broad mandate to accomplish that specific task. As part of that international coalition, I authorized the United States military to work with our international partners to fulfill that mandate.
Now, I also have stated that it is U.S. policy that Qaddafi needs to go. And we got a wide range of tools in addition to our military efforts to support that policy. We were very rapid in initiating unilateral sanctions and then helping to mobilize international sanctions against the Qaddafi regime. We froze assets that Qaddafi might have used to further empower himself and purchase weapons or hire mercenaries that might be directed 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. Qaddafi, and we will continue to pursue those. But when it comes to our military action, we are doing so in support of U.N. Security Resolution 1973, that specifically talks about humanitarian efforts. And we are going to make sure that we stick to that mandate.
I think it’s also important, since we’re on the topic, that I have consistently emphasized that because we’re working with international partners, after the initial thrust that has disabled Qaddafi’s air defenses, limits his ability to threaten large population centers like Benghazi, that there is going to be a transition taking place in which we have a range of coalition partners — the Europeans, members of the Arab league — who will then be participating in establishing a no-fly zone there.
And so 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 that no-fly zone is enforced and that the humanitarian protection that needs to be provided continues to be in place.
With respect to initiating this action while I was abroad, keep in mind that we were working on very short time frames, and we had done all the work and it was just a matter of seeing how Qaddafi would react to the warning that I issued on Friday.
He, despite words to the contrary, was continuing to act aggressively towards his civilians. After a consultation with our allies, we decided to move forward. And it was a matter of me directing Secretary of Defense Gates and Admiral Mullen that the plan that had been developed in great detail extensively prior to my departure was put into place.
Jim, I’ve forgotten if they were any other elements of that question. But I’ve tried to be as thorough as possible.
Q Arab support, sir.
PRESIDENT OBAMA: Well, look, the Arab League specifically called for a no-fly zone before we went to the United Nations. And that was I think an important element in this overall campaign.
Q But will they be part of the mission?
PRESIDENT OBAMA: Absolutely. We are in consultations as we speak. As I said, there are different phases to the campaign. The initial campaign, we took a larger role because we’ve got some unique capabilities. Our ability to take out, for example, Qaddafi’s air defense systems are much more significant than some of our other partners. What that does then is it creates the space; it shapes the environment in which a no-fly zone can actually be effective.
It was also important to make sure that we got in there quickly so that whatever advances were being made on Benghazi could be halted, and we could send a clear message to Qaddafi that he needed to start pulling his troops back.
Now, keep in mind, we’ve only been in this process for two days now, and so we are continuing to evaluate the situation on the ground. I know the Pentagon and our Defense Department will be briefing you extensively as this proceeds. But the core principle that has to be upheld here is that when the entire international community almost unanimously says that there’s 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; that we have to take some sort of action.
I think it’s also important to note that the way that the U.S. took leadership and managed this process ensures international legitimacy and ensures that our partners, members of the international coalition are bearing the burden of following through on the mission, as well. Because, as you know, in the past there have been times where the United States acted unilaterally or did not have full international support, and as a consequence typically it was the United States military that ended up bearing the entire burden.
Now, last point I’ll make on this: I could not be prouder of the manner in which the U.S. military has performed over the last several days. And it’s a testament to the men and women in uniform who, when they’re given a mission, they execute and do an outstanding job.
But, obviously, our military is already very stretched and carries large burdens all around the world. And whenever possible for us to be able to get international cooperation — not just in terms of words, but also in terms of planes and pilots and resources — that’s something that we should actively seek and embrace, because 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.