President Barack Obama predicted Tuesday that continued military and diplomatic pressure will force Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi to "ultimately step down."
In an interview with NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams a day after he addressed the nation to explain his Libya policy , Obama refused to rule out providing direct U.S. military assistance to the rebels fighting Gadhafi's government. But he said that was unlikely and that his comments shouldn't be interpreted as signaling wider U.S. intervention in the region.
"Gadhafi's been greatly weakened," Obama said. "He does not have control over most of Libya at this point, and so for us to continue to apply this pressure, I think, will allow us the space and the time to forge the kind of political solution that's necessary."
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Obama said that nine days into the U.S. action in Libya, "The degree to which we've degraded Gadhafi's forces ... has been significant."
His comments came after U.S. ships and submarines were reported to have fired cruise missiles at Libyan missile facilities in and around Tripoli overnight.
"Our primary military goal is to protect civilian populations and to set up the no-fly zone," he said, but "we're not taking anything off the table at this point."
"One of the questions that we want to answer is do we start getting to a stage where Gadhafi's forces are sufficiently degraded where it may not be necessary to arm opposition groups," he said.
Asked whether the U.S. could take that step, Obama said: "I'm not ruling it out, but I'm not ruling it in. We're still making an assessment partly about what Gadhafi's forces are going to be doing."
Gadhafi 'back on his heels'
The president appeared to go further in discussing direct military assistance than did diplomats from 40 countries who met Tuesday in London to discuss Libya's future. British Foreign Secretary William Hague said the possibility of arming the rebels did not come up at the meeting, which was attended by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.
Like the allies at the London meeting, Obama made it clear in the interview that "our primary strategic goal is for Gadhafi to step down so the Libyan people have an opportunity to live a decent life."
"At this point, in addition to maintaining a no-fly zone protecting civilian populations, we also have political tools, diplomatic tools, sanctions freezing his assets — all of which continue to tighten the noose," he said. "And so our expectation is that as we continue to supply steady pressure, not only militarily but also through these other means, that Gadhafi will ultimately step down."Video: NATO takeover in Libya delayed (on this page)
The president said he was reluctant to get involved in Libya because of lessons learned from the U.S. campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan, each of which he said "weighs heavily on making these decisions." But he maintained that the uprising in Libya was "a unique circumstance" where the U.S. could "save a lot of lives."
"We had an international mandate to do it and an international coalition that was prepared to share the burdens," he said, and "what we've ... done is put Gadhafi back on his heels."
Obama acknowledged that the U.S. intervention had raised international concerns that the door had been opened for American forces to take action in other regional hot spots, like Syria, Bahrain, Sudan, Yemen and the Ivory Coast.
But Obama said "there are a whole range of tools available" to work out those problems.
He added: "It's my job as president to make those decisions based on all the consequences, understanding that we have some experience here in trying to impose our will in places like Iraq, and I think the American people understand a cost of that."
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