WASHINGTON — President Obama told a skeptical American public that he ordered military action in Libya because circumstances allowed the U.S. and its allies to halt a humanitarian disaster, but he acknowledged that even a weakened Moammar Kadafi still may be a long way from leaving power.
In his first address to the nation since launching cruise missiles and airstrikes 10 days ago, Obama on Monday cast doubt on the likelihood of U.S. military action in other Middle Eastern countries, where oppressed citizens have taken to the streets to demand reform. Under his leadership, he said, the United States would not act unilaterally, risking American lives and treasure as it did by launching the Iraq war in 2003.
Libya, ruled for more than four decades by a man Obama referred to as a "tyrant," is a country where the United States could build an alliance that would protect civilians and defend U.S. interests, he said.
"In this particular country, Libya, at this particular moment, we were faced with the prospect of violence on a horrific scale," Obama said. "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 from the Libyan people themselves."
"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," he said.
The U.S. had an "important strategic interest" in preventing Kadafi from overrunning the opposition forces because a massacre would have driven thousands of refugees across Libyan borders and put a strain on the transitional governments in Egypt and Tunisia and on American allies in Europe.
Obama said the U.S. acted when Kadafi's troops, taking advantage of their superior weaponry against a ragtag rebel force, were close to overrunning the opposition's de facto capital, Benghazi, in eastern Libya. With Kadafi's air force grounded and armored vehicles in smoking ruins along the roads because of strikes by warplanes from the U.S., Britain, France and other countries, Obama said, the U.S. was stepping back to allow the North Atlantic Treaty Organization to take charge.
The U.S. still will provide intelligence, logistics, search-and-rescue help and expertise to jam Kadafi's communications, he said.
Obama's justification for intervening in Libya may provide a response to those who question why his administration acted there and not in other countries such as U.S. allies Bahrain and Yemen, where civilian protesters have been killed. In Syria, a country of greater strategic importance than Libya that long has had a strained relationship with Washington, dozens have died in recent days.
Gaining United Nations Security Council approval to act and building a military coalition could be much more difficult in any of those cases than it was against Kadafi, who has alienated world powers and his neighbors alike during his long rule.
Obama's speech did little to clear up how military action under a U.N. mandate to protect civilians squares with an offensive by ragtag Libyan rebels who see airstrikes by foreign warplanes as essential to their success. And it did not offer a clear path to removing Kadafi from power.
Obama said the U.S. would continue to work to cut off the supply of arms and cash to the Kadafi regime and to assist the opposition.
"It may not happen overnight, as a badly weakened Kadafi tries desperately to hang on to power," Obama said. "But it should be clear to those around Kadafi, and to every Libyan, that history is not on his side."
While refraining from openly criticizing Obama's decision to dispatch military personnel to the region, some Republicans in Congress have criticized the president for waiting to speak publicly about the military action.
Others questioned how Obama could allow Kadafi to remain in power and not use military force to oust him. As long as the Libyan leader remains in control, said Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), "he will increasingly pose a threat to the world and civilians in Libya will not be fully secure."
Administration officials have acknowledged they have worried about the prospect of Kadafi, once a leading supporter of terrorism, regaining some degree of control, or becoming locked in a protracted civil war.
In the days preceding the speech, administration officials have been laying out the defense of the military campaign. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates took to the airwaves over the weekend to make the case that the country has an interest in protecting its allies and promoting stability in the region.
White House officials have also stressed there would be international cooperation on the effort.
But Obama's remarks were aimed at an American public tired of ongoing war elsewhere and skeptical about the wisdom of the airstrikes.