By M. Alex Johnson Reporter
msnbc.com
updated 3/29/2011 8:25:46 AM ET 2011-03-29T12:25:46

President Barack Obama declared Monday night that the U.S. military action in Libya had "stopped (Moammar) Gadhafi's deadly advance," fulfilling what he said was a U.S. responsibility not to "turn a blind eye to atrocities in other countries."

"It may not happen overnight, as a badly weakened Gadhafi tries desperately to hang on to power," the president said. "But it should be clear to those around Gadhafi and to every Libyan that history is not on Gadhafi's side."

In a nationally televised address from the National Defense University in Washington, Obama sought to convince a skeptical Congress and a doubting nation that he was doing the right thing by intervening militarily in a third Muslim nation. He did that by casting the conflict as a moral response to oppression by Libya's leader, whom he called "a tyrant."

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In leading a Western coalition "to stop the killing," Obama said, the U.S. prevented "a massacre that would have reverberated across the region and stained the conscience of the world."

The administration has struggled to make clear what it hopes to achieve in Libya, where U.S. forces were sent March 19 while Obama was out of the country on a South American tour.

In a Gallup poll released last week, 47 percent of respondents said they backed the campaign, the lowest level of support ever recorded in a poll taken at the beginning of a U.S. military action.

The campaign has also run into stiff resistance from members of both parties in Congress, who have complained that Obama did not consult them ahead of time. Rep. Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio, accused Obama of having committed "an impeachable offense."

Obama acknowledged that "Americans continue to have questions about our efforts in Libya." To allay those concerns, he stressed that enforcing reform in Libya "will be a task for the international community and, more importantly, a task for the Libyan people themselves."

The U.S. role will be "limited," he said, promising that he would not send ground troops into the country.

Obama said the U.S. was just one part of a broad international coalition that had no choice but to act after Gadhafi rejected its ultimatum to "stop his campaign of killing or face the consequences."

The military action will be turned over to NATO leadership Wednesday, he said, and "the United States will play a supporting role" — mainly intelligence, logistical support and search-and-rescue operations.

"Because of this transition to a broader, NATO-based coalition, the risk and cost of this operation to our military and to American taxpayers will be reduced significantly," he said.

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Libya not a template, administration says
Before the speech, Obama's deputy national security adviser, Denis McDonough, told reporters that Americans should not be worried that the intervention in Libya could open the door to further U.S. action in the Muslim world, where U.S. forces are already on the ground in Afghanistan and Iraq.

"It's not an international thing," McDonough said, insisting, like Obama, that the Libyan action was unique.

"We don't get very hung up on this question of precedent, because we don't make decisions about questions like intervention based on consistency or precedent. We base them on how we can best advance our interests in the region," he said.

Video: What if Libyan mission doesn’t go as planned? (on this page)

Obama echoed that assessment, saying the U.S. was simply playing its "unique role as an anchor of global security and advocate for human freedom."

"It is true that America cannot use our military wherever repression occurs," he said. 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. ...

Vote: Speech a success or flop?

"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."

No targeting of Gadhafi
But Obama said that was as far as the U.S. was willing to go, cautioning that "broadening our military mission to include regime change would be a mistake."

"If we tried to overthrow Gadhafi by force, our coalition would splinter," he predicted. "We would likely have to put U.S. troops on the ground or risk killing many civilians from the air.

"To be blunt, we went down that road in Iraq," he said — a road that took eight years to travel. "That is not something we can afford to repeat in Libya."

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., criticized Obama for promising Gadhafi that he wouldn't be overthrown by force, saying in an interview on CNN that "Gadhafi must have been somewhat comforted by that."

Story: How Obama's Libya claims fit the facts  

Other members of Congress also had reservations.

"Tonight's speech left many questions unanswered," said Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, a member of the Armed Services Committee, who said Obama "has yet to clearly define the scope of our mission, the metrics for success and our ultimate goal."

House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, also complained that Obama gave "few new answers."

"Nine days into this military intervention, Americans still have no answer to the fundamental question: What does success in Libya look like?" Boehner said.

Adam Smith of Washington, the ranking Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, said he, too, "had some concerns with the level of communication between the administration, Congress and the American people." But he welcomed Obama's explanation of his "rationale for leading an international effort to prevent a humanitarian crisis in Libya."

"While the administration could have done a better job of working with Congress in the days prior to taking action, it is clear that U.S. leadership prevented this humanitarian crisis from getting worse and saved thousands of lives," Smith said. "As a nation, that is something we should be proud of."

Luke Russert and Kelly O'Donnell of NBC News contributed to this report from Washington.

© 2013 msnbc.com Reprints

Video: Obama defends US role in Libya

  1. Closed captioning of: Obama defends US role in Libya

    >> making his case for u.s. involvement in libya . chuck todd , good morning to you.

    >> reporter: good morning. the president used a 28-minute speech to make the case for limited military action in libya and took the opportunity to rebut critics left and right about how and whether to target gadhafi with the military. in total he used the framework of american values to make the case.

    >> the united states of america has done what we said we would do.

    >> reporter: explaining the case for military action in libya , the president said it was in america 's national interest and the u.s. had a responsibility to act.

    >> 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.

    >> reporter: the president said failure to act would have carried a far greater price.

    >> the united states and the world faced a choice. gadhafi declared he would show no mercy to his own people. we knew if we waited one more day, benghazi, a city nearly the size of charlotte, could suffer a massacre that would have reverberate across the region and stained the conscience of the world.

    >> reporter: mr. obama declared the mission so far a success.

    >> i said america 's role would be limited, that we would not put ground troops into libya , that we would focus our unique capabilities on the front end of the operation and we would transfer responsibility to our allies and partners. tonight we are fulfilling that pledge.

    >> reporter: the president said until gadhafi steps down, libya will remain dangerous, but he rejected the idea of using the military to target gadhafi comparing it to iraq and president bush 's decision to go after saddam hussein .

    >> if we tried to overthrow gadhafi by force we would likely have to put u.s. troops on the ground to accomplish the mission, or risk killing many civilians from the air. to be blunt, we went down that road in iraq. the regime change there took eight years, thousands of american and iraqi lives and nearly a trillion dollars. that is not something we can afford to repeat in libya .

    >> reporter: the president ended with a broader focus on the uprisings throughout the middle east .

    >> the united states cannot dictate the pace and scope of the change. only the people of the region can do that. but we can make a difference.

    >> reporter: despite it being a foreign policy speech there are splits along partisan lines with republicans upset about the lack of timeline for an exit strategy and oveven john mccain upset.

Photos: Libya's uprising against Gadhafi

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  1. People gathering in Benghazi, Libya in mid-February of 2011 as protest against the rule of Moammar Gadhafi grew, in part triggered by the arrest of human rights activist Fethi Tarbel. EDITOR'S NOTE: The content, date and location of this image could not be independently verified. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Buildings at the entrance to a security forces compound burn in Benghazi, Feb. 21, 2011. Libyan protesters celebrated in the streets of Benghazi, claiming control of the country's second largest city after bloody fighting, and anti-government unrest spread to the capital with clashes in Tripoli's main square for the first time. (Alaguri / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi speaks on state television. Feb. 22, and signalled his defiance over a mounting revolt against his 41-year rule. (Libya TV via Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Libyan U.N. ambassador Shalgham is embraced by Dabbashi, Libya's deputy U.N. Ambassador after denouncing Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi for the first time during a Security Council meeting at the headquarters of the United Nations in New York on Feb. 25. Shalgam, a longtime friend and member of Gadhafi's inner circle, had previously refused to denounce Gadhafi. (Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Thousands of Libyans gather for the Muslim Friday prayers outside the courthouse in the eastern city of Benghazi on Feb. 25, 2011. Perhaps 8,000 people gathered for the midday prayers with a local imam, who delivered his sermon alongside the coffins of three men killed in the violent uprising that routed Gadhafi loyalists from Benghazi. (Gianluigi Guercia / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Rebels hold a young man at gunpoint, who they accuse of being a loyalist to Gadhafi, between the towns of Brega and Ras Lanuf, March 3, 2011. (Goran Tomasevic / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Pro-Gadhafi soldiers and supporters gather in Green Square in Tripoli, March 6, 2011. Thousands of Moammar Gadhafi's supporters poured into the streets of Tripoli, waving flags and firing their guns in the air in the Libyan leader's main stronghold, claiming overnight military successes. (Ben Curtis / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Rebel fighters jump away from shrapnel during heavy shelling by forces loyal to Gadhafi near Bin Jawad, March 6. Rebels in east Libya regrouped and advanced on Bin Jawad after Gadhafi forces ambushed rebel fighters and ejected them from the town earlier in the day. (Goran Tomasevic / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Libyan rebel fighters take cover as a bomb dropped by an airforce fighter jet explodes near a checkpoint on the outskirts of the oil town of Ras Lanuf on March 7, 2011. (Marco Longari / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Libyan rebels fire rockets at government troops on the frontline. March 9, 2011 near Ras Lanuf. The rebels pushed back government troops westward towards Ben Jawat. (John Moore / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Libyan government soldiers aboard tanks at the west gate of the town Ajdabiyah March 16, 2011. Libya's army pounded an opposition-held city in the country's west and battled fighters trying to block its advance on a rebel bastion in the east amid flagging diplomatic efforts to end the bloodshed. EDITOR'S NOTE: Picture taken on a government guided tour. (Ahmed Jadallah / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Libyan people in Benghazi celebrate after the United Nations Security Council authorized a no-fly zone over Libya, March 18. Thousands of Libyans erupted in cheers as the news flashed on a giant screen in besieged Benghazi late March 17. After weeks of discussion, the UN Security Council banned flights in Libya's airspace and authorized "all necessary means" to implement the ban, triggering intervention by individual countries and organizations like NATO. (EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. A picture combo shows a Libyan jet bomber crashing after being apparently shot down in Benghazi on March 19, 2011 as the Libyan rebel stronghold came under attack. Air strikes and sustained shelling of the city's south sent thick smoke into the sky. (Patrick Baz / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Residents of Benghazi flee the city along the road toward Tobruk, in an attempt to escape fighting in their city, March 19, 2011. Gaddafi's troops pushed into the outskirts of Benghazi, a city of 670,000 people, in an apparent attempt to pre-empt Western military intervention expected after a meeting of Western and Arab leaders in Paris. (Reuters TV) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Vehicles belonging to forces loyal to Gadhafi explode after an air strike by coalition forces, along a road between Benghazi and Ajdabiyah March 20, 2011. (Goran Tomasevic / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. A rebel fighter carries his weapon outside the northeastern Libyan town of Ajdabiyah, March 21, 2011. A wave of air strikes hit Gaddafi's troops around Ajdabiyah, a strategic town in the barren, scrub of eastern Libya that rebels aim to retake and where their fighters said they need more help. (Finbarr O'reilly / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. A Libyan rebel prays next to his gun on the frontline of the outskirts of the city of Ajdabiya, south of Benghazi, March 21, 2011. The international military intervention in Libya is likely to last "a while," a top French official said, echoing Moammar Gadhafi's warning of a long war ahead as rebels, energized by the strikes on their opponents. (Anja Niedringhaus / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. Libyan rebels retreat as mortars from Gadhafi's forces are fired on them near the outskirts of the city of Ajdabiya, March 22, 2011. Coalition forces bombarded Libya for a third straight night, targeting the air defenses and forces of Libyan ruler Moammar Gadhafi, stopping his advances and handing some momentum back to the rebels, who were on the verge of defeat. (Anja Niedringhaus / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. A Libyan man is comforted by hospital staff as he reacts after identifying his killed brother in the morgue of the Jalaa hospital in Benghazi, March 22, 2011. His brother was killed earlier in fighting around the city of Ajdabiya. (Anja Niedringhaus / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. Volunteer fighters training at a rebel army training camp in Benghazi, March 29, 2011. Pro-government forces intensified their attacks on Libyan rebels, driving them back over ground they had taken in recent days. The rebels had reached Nawfaliya, but pulled back to Bin Jawad. (Manu Brabo / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. Smoke billows as seven explosions were reported in the tightly-guarded residence of leader Moammar Gadhafi and military targets in the suburb of Tajura. Two explosions also rocked the Libyan capital Tripoli on March 29, 2011, as NATO-led coalition aircraft had been seen in the skies over the capital. (Mahmud Turkia / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. A Libyan rebel urges people to leave, as shelling from Gadhafi's forces started landing on the frontline outside of Bin Jawaad, 93 miles east of Sirte, March 29, 2011. (Anja Niedringhaus / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. General Abdel-Fattah Younis, former interior minister in the Gadhafi regime who defected in the early days of the uprising, is greeted by Libyan rebels at the front line near Brega, April 1, 2011. (Altaf Qadri / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. Libyan men show the V-sign for victory as they stand on the deck of a Turkish ship arriving from Misrata to the port of Benghazi who were evacuated along with others the injured in the fighting between rebel and Gadhafi forces, April 03, 2011. The Turkish vessel took hundreds of people wounded in the Libyan uprising for treatment in Turkey from the two cities of Misrata and Benghazi. (Mahmud Hams / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  25. A wounded prisoner from Gadhafi's forces is transported in the back of a pickup truck by rebels, on the way to a hospital for treatment, half way between Brega and Ajdabiya, April 9, 2011. Rebels say they took two prisoners after a clash with soldiers near Brega's university outside the government-controlled oil facilities, marking a noticeable advance by rebels. (Ben Curtis / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  26. In this image taken from TV, Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi makes a pubic appearance in Tripoli, April 14 2011. Gadhafi defiantly waved at his supporters while being driven around Tripoli while standing up through the sunroof of a car. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  27. A rebel fighter celebrates as his comrades fire a rocket barrage toward the positions of government troops April 14, 2011, west of Ajdabiyah. (Chris Hondros / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  28. Gadhafi supporters hold copies of his portrait as they gather at the Bab Al Azizia compound in Tripoli, April 15, 2011. Rebels held much of eastern Libya by mid-April, while Gadhafi controlled the west, with the front line shifting back and forth in the middle. (Pier Paolo Cito / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  29. Doctors work on a baby who suffered cuts from shrapnel that blasted through the window of his home during fighting in the besieged city of Misrata, April 18, 2011. Thousands of civilians are trapped in Misrata as fighting continues between Libyan government forces that have surrounded the city and anti-government rebels there. The Libyan government has come under international criticism for using heavy weapons and artillery in its assault on Misrata. (Chris Hondros / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  30. MISRATA, LIBYA - APRIL 20: Libyan rebel fighters discuss how to dislodge some ensconced government loyalist troops who were firing on them from the next room during house-to-house fighting on Tripoli Street in downtown Misrata April 20, 2011 in Misrata, Libya. Rebel forces assaulted the downtown positions of troops loyal to Libyan strongman Moammar Gaddafi April 20, briefly forcing them back over a key bridge and trapping several in a building that fought back instead of surrendering, firing on the rebels in the building and seriously wounding two of them during the standoff. Fighting continues between Libyan government forces that have surrounded the city and anti-government rebels ensconced there. (Photo by Chris Hondros/Getty Images) (Chris Hondros / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  31. Libyan rebel fighters carry out a comrade wounded during an effort to dislodge some ensconced government loyalist troops who were firing on them from a building during house-to-house fighting on Tripoli Street in downtown Misrata April 20, 2011. Rebel forces assaulted the downtown positions of troops loyal to Gaddafi, briefly forcing them back over a key bridge and trapping several in a building where they fought back instead of surrendering. Two rebels were seriously wounded during the standoff. (Chris Hondros / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  32. Rebels tread carefully as they prepare to invade a house where soldiers from the pro-government forces had their base in the Zwabi area of Misrata on April 24, 2011. (Andre Liohn / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  33. Libyans inspect damage and an unexploded missile at the Gadhafi family compound in a residential area of Tripoli, May 1, 2011. Gadhafi escaped a NATO missile strike in Tripoli that killed one of his sons and three young grandchildren. EDITOR'S NOTE: Photo taken on a government guided tour. (Darko Bandic / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  34. Moammar Gaddafi's son Saif al-Islam Gadhafi, center, leaves the funeral of his brother Saif Al-Arab Gadhafi, who was killed during air strikes by coalition forces, at the El Hani cemetery in Tripoli, May 2, 2011. Crowds chanting Gadhafi's name gathered in Tripoli for the funeral of his son and three grandchildren. (Louafi Larbi / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  35. Fleeing migrants and Libyans are seen on board an International Organization of Migration ship leaving the port of Misrata on May 4, 2011, as Gadhafi forces continued to pound the city. (Christophe Simon / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  36. Libyan men watch as the main fuel depot in Libya's third largest city, Misrata, burns following a bombing by Gadhafi's forces on May 7, 2011. Libyan regime forces shelled fuel depots in Misrata and dropped mines into its harbor using helicopters bearing the Red Cross emblem, rebels said as they braced for a ground assault. (Ricardo Garcia Vilanova / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  37. Libyan rebels celebrate near the airport of Misrata on May 11, 2011 after capturing the city's strategic airport following a fierce battle with Moammar Gadhafi's troops -- their first significant advance in weeks. (Ricardo Garcia Vilanova / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  38. Women react after a protest against Moammar Gadhafi's regime in Benghazi, Libya, on May 16, 2011. Luis Moreno-Ocampo, prosecutor of the International Criminal Court in The Hague, announced that he would seek arrest warrants against the leader of Libya, Moammar Gadhafi, his son Seif al-Islam and the country's intelligence chief on charges of crimes against humanity. (Rodrigo Abd / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  39. Tripoli street in Misrata is seen from the terrace of a building used by Gadhafi’s snipers before the rebels took control of the area on May 22, 2011. The weeks-long siege of the city ended in mid-May and Tripoli Street was the site of the fiercest fighting in the battle and a turnin point in the war. (Rodrigo Abd / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  40. A rebel fighter gives water to a soldier loyal to Gadhafi after he was wounded and then captured near the front line, west of Misrata on May 23, 2011. (Rodrigo Abd / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  41. An uncle, left, prays over the body of one and a half year-old Mohsen Ali al-Sheikh during a washing ritual during the funeral at his family's house in Misrata, May 27, 2011. The child was killed by a gunshot during clashes between rebels and pro-Gadhafi forces earlier in the day. (Wissam Saleh / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  42. The body of a drowned refugee floats near a capsized ship which was transporting an estimated 850 refugees from Libya, approximately 22 miles north of the Tunisian islands of Kerkennah, June 4, 2011. At least 578 survived the sinking. (Lindsay Mackenzie / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  43. A photograph taken from a video by a National Transitional Council (NTC) fighter shows Mutassem Gadhafi, son of Moammar Gadhafi, drinking water and smoking a cigarette following his capture and shortly before his death, in Sirte, Oct. 20, 2011. (- / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  44. A photograph taken from mobile phone video of a National Transitional Council (NTC) fighter shows the capture of Moammar Gadhafi in Sirte on Oct. 20, 2011. (AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  45. This image provided by the Libyan Youth Group on Nov. 19, 2011, shows Seif al-Islam Gadhafi after he was captured near the Niger border with Libya. Moammar Gadhafi's son, the only wanted member of the ousted ruling family to remain at large, was captured as he traveled with aides in a convoy in Libya's southern desert. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
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Vote: Obama's address on Libya: Success or flop?