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Obama says events in Libya demanded quick action

In a TV interview, the president says he did not seek congressional authorization for U.S. airstrikes because lives were at stake. He says he told congressional leaders of his intentions beforehand.

March 29, 2011|By Christi Parsons, Washington Bureau
  • President Obama speaks at the dedication of a new building at the United Nations.
President Obama speaks at the dedication of a new building at the United… (Jim Watson / AFP/Getty Images )

Reporting from Washington — Explaining why he didn't seek congressional authorization to launch airstrikes on Libya, President Obama said Tuesday he needed to "move quickly to save lives" as Libyan leader Moammar Kadafi's forces advanced on civilians.

In an interview with NBC News, Obama said he had consulted with congressional leaders beforehand, including the top Republicans in the House and Senate, "and made sure that they knew this was a possibility that might take place, but we might have to move quickly."

Obama differentiated the Libyan no-fly zone from the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, which he frequently criticized before and after he became a U.S. senator and a presidential candidate. On the campaign trail in 2007, while criticizing the handling of the Iraq war, Obama said that presidents should personally authorize a military attack only to stop an "actual or imminent threat to the nation."

"The key point … is that this is not a situation analogous to Iraq, in which we are devoting ground troops and a long, protracted battle that puts American lives at risk," Obama told NBC, according to a network transcript. "For us to take this limited action, limited both in time and scope … I think was the right thing to do."

Photos: Rebels retreat after failed attempt to take Surt

The interview was the first time Obama has responded to a direct question about his 2007 comment on the president's constitutional authority to conduct military action. He taped a series of conversations with network anchors Tuesday as part of his administration's push to justify the military action in Libya.

The president traveled to New York the day after addressing the nation about Libya. He was also scheduled to appear at Democratic fundraisers in the evening.

In addition, Obama spoke at the dedication of the new building for the U.S. mission to the United Nations, named for late Commerce Secretary Ron Brown, who died in a 1996 plane crash while on government business.

At the U.N. ceremony, Obama praised what he called the "extraordinary leadership" of former President Clinton in the Balkans. Clinton spurred a NATO bombing campaign in 1999 to stop the Yugoslav crackdown on ethnic Albanians seeking independence in Kosovo.

There are times, Obama said in the NBC interview, in which "our conscience and our common interests compel us to act."

That doesn't mean the U.S. can do so whenever it wants, he said, echoing an idea prominent in the administration's campaign to convince Americans he did the right thing in Libya.

Under his leadership, he said, the U.S. will take such actions in concert with other nations.

The world is "more secure and the interests of the United States are best advanced when we act collectively," Obama said. "The burden of action should not always be America's alone."

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