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Obama defends U.S. military mission in Libya

'We have already saved lives,' President Obama says at a news conference in El Salvador. He calls the U.S. military commitment in Libya 'limited in time, scope, with a well-defined mission.'

March 22, 2011|By Michael A. Memoli, Washington Bureau

Reporting from Washington — President Obama on Tuesday defended the United States' involvement in military strikes on Libya, maintaining that the commitment is "limited in time, scope, with a well-defined mission."

As he faces growing dissent at home for the manner in which the operation was launched, Obama said Americans "should be proud" of an effort that averted a major humanitarian crisis.

Photos: U.S., allies launch attacks in Libya

"We have already saved lives," Obama said during a news conference in El Salvador, where he is continuing a scheduled five-day Latin American trip. "In Benghazi, a city of 700,000 people, you had the prospect of [Moammar] Kadafi's forces carrying out his orders to show no mercy. That could have resulted in catastrophe in that town. Kadafi's forces have pulled back because of this timely intervention."

Obama said he has "absolutely no doubt" that the U.S. will be able to transfer control of the operation to an international coalition, and that already fewer American assets are being employed.

"I said at the outset that this was going to be a matter of days, not weeks. And there's nothing based on how we've been able to execute over the last several days that changes that assessment," he said.

Asked if he had sufficiently communicated to the American people the cost of the operation, the president said his administration would continue to provide details to the public. He also compared the operation to American assistance efforts in Japan in the wake of the devastating earthquake and tsunami.

"Events happen around the world in which the United States, with our unique capabilities, has to respond as a leader in the world community," he said. "We're confident that not only can our goals be achieved, but that at the end of the day the American people are going to feel satisfied that lives were saved and people were helped."

A Gallup survey released Tuesday showed that 47% of Americans approve of the military action, while 37% disapprove. That level of support is lower than initial public opinion of past operations, including operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Some of the uncertainty about the operation that American lawmakers want Obama to explain is how to reconcile the narrow mandate of the U.N. resolution authorizing the use of force with the stated U.S. policy of removing Kadafi from power.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, in an interview with ABC News on Tuesday, signaled that Kadafi was indeed seeking an exit plan.

"We've heard about other people close to him reaching out to people that they know around the world — Africa, the Middle East, Europe, North America, beyond — saying, what do we do? How do we get out of this? What happens next?" Clinton said.

El Salvador is the final stop in Obama's three-nation tour that began Saturday. The White House announced Tuesday afternoon that the president has canceled a planned sightseeing excursion Wednesday, allowing him to return to Washington ahead of schedule.

Photos: U.S., allies launch attacks in Libya

michael.memoli@latimes.com

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