In sit-down with NBC News, president says most help offered to Libya will be humanitarian aid and “non-lethal” assistance.
And/But: Tells ABC that he hasn’t ruled out arming the rebels.
TRANSCRIPT OF BRIAN WILLIAMS’ INTERVIEW WITH PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA
The moment your speech ended last night, the Associated Press put out an item that read that: “President Obama’s speech was about the defending the first war launched on his watch.” How does it end?
Well, first of all, I think it’s important to note that we’ve had two wars on my watch. One which we’ve wound down, and we do not have combat operations in Iraq anymore. Afghanistan, obviously, is still a tough fight. And, you know, that weighs heavily on me in making these decisions.
But what was clear to me was we had a unique circumstance to save a lot of lives in this Libyan situation, and that we had an international mandate to do it, and an international coalition that was prepared to share the burdens. Now, what we’ve done is accomplish what we set out to do at the outset, which is to make sure that Benghazi was not overrun, and that thousands, potentially, of people were not killed.
What we’ve also done is put Khadaffy back on his heels. 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. And so our expectation is that as we continue to apply steady pressure, not only militarily but also through these other means, that Khadaffy will ultimately step down.
What if it doesn’t work? What if the rebels find themselves bogged down, this becomes protracted?
Well, keep in mind that what we’ve already done is transitioned, so that this is now a NATO and international mission. Our role is to provide support, intelligence, jamming capabilities, refueling capabilities. And so we have been able to spread the burdens of maintaining a no-fly zone and protecting civilian populations. And we can do that for quite some time, precisely because we built a strong coalition to make it happen.
But Khadaffy’s been greatly weakened. 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.
How do you not offer the rebels direct assistance of some sort?
Well, we will be providing them direct assistance–
Secretary Clinton was in London for a conference today at which multiple countries pledged to provide assistance. Most of the assistance, initially, is going to be non-lethal assistance. So humanitarian aid — they may need communications equipment, they may need medical supplies, potentially transportation.
We are going to be looking at all options to provide support to the Libyan people so that we can transition towards a more peaceful and more stable Libya.
Due respect, Mr. President, watching the reportings of our two correspondents in Libya. What it appears the rebels need is military equipment. Some of their equipment dates back to World War II. Are you ruling out U.S. military hardware assistance?
I’m not ruling it out. But I’m also not ruling it in. We’re still making an assessment partly about what Khadaffy’s forces are going to be doing. Keep in mind, we’ve been at this now for nine days. And the degree to which we’ve degraded Khadaffy’s forces in those nine days has been significant.
Operations to protect civilians continue to take out Khadaffy’s forces, his tanks, his artillery on the ground, and that will continue for some time. And so one of the questions that we want to answer is: do we start getting to a stage where Khadaffy’s forces are sufficiently degraded, where it may not be necessary to arm opposition groups.
But we’re not taking anything off the table at this point. Our primary military goal is to protect civilian populations and to set up the no-fly zone. Our primary strategic goal is for Khadaffy to step down so that the Libyan people have an opportunity to live a decent life.
Some tempers are still pretty frosted in Congress over the lack of consultation, as you know. And people have been reading back this quote from candidate-Barack Obama in 2007: quote, “The President does not have the power under the Constitution to unilaterally authorize a military attack in a situation that does not involve stopping an actual or imminent threat to the nation. History has shown us time and time again military action is most successful when it is authorized and supported by the legislative branch.” What happened in this instance?
Well, keep in mind that we had to move quickly to save lives. Khadaffy’s forces were on the edge of Benghazi. I consulted with a bipartisan group including the Speaker of the House, including the Republican leader in the Senate. And made sure that they knew this was a possibility that might take place, but we might have to move quickly.
Now, since that time, we’ve had extensive consultations with Congress. And the key point here 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. Obviously, there are always costs and risks involved in war, as I indicated.
But for us to take this limited action, limited both in time and scope, to ensure that potentially thousands of people were saved in a neighborhood that could be profoundly destabilized — Libya borders on Egypt and Tunisia, two countries that are going through peaceful transitions, and we have a huge stake in making sure that those are successful — I think was the right thing to do.
And three weeks from now, if a member of your circle makes an impassioned case to do the same in Syria, to finally decouple it from Iran, what do you do?
Well, as I indicated last night, I think it’s important not to take this particular situation and then try to project some sort of Obama Doctrine that we’re going to apply in a cookie-cutter fashion across the board. Each country in this region is different. Our principles remain the same.
We want to make sure that governments are not attacking their own citizens. We believe in core, fundamental human rights, like freedom of speech and freedom of assembly. We want governments that are responsive to their people. And so we’ll use all our tools to try to accomplish that.
But Libya was a unique situation where a limited military intervention that had a strong international mandate and strong international participation could make the difference — life or death difference — for a lot of people. And in that situation, it made sense. That does not mean that somehow we are going to go around trying to use military force to impose or apply certain forms of government.
And there are going to be some tough things that happen in that– in that region over the next several months and years, potentially, because there’s a series of forces that have been unleashed. Many of which, I think over the long-term, will turn out positively. But it’s going to be a bumpy ride.
And what America needs to do is to make sure that we are a positive presence in the region, we’re sending the right messages about the outcomes we’d like to see, more democracy, more freedom, more stability. But we may not be applying the same tools in each country, in every case.
But because, Mr. President, you did choose your words so carefully in last night’s speech, and you laid out what seems to be this new standard of a threat to U.S. interests and values, then by that standard, what about Bahrain and Yemen and–
–Sudan and the Ivory Coast for that matter?
Right. Well, in each of those countries, keep in mind, we’ve got very clear policies. I mean, let’s take the Ivory Coast — Côte d’Ivoire. You’ve got a situation there where a guy– the previous President lost an election, he had international observers, everybody knows that he lost the election. He’s now using his thugs to try to stay in power and intimidate the opposition and the duly elected President.
In that situation, we are applying a whole range of diplomatic forces and trying to organize with African countries and neighbors– to isolate this guy, to encourage him to leave, to put pressure on him. So there are a whole range of tools available. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that the military tool is the one that we’re going to use.
So the point I tried to make yesterday is this: When it comes to a potential direct attack against the United States, one of our allies — an attack on U.S. troops anywhere in the world — there, we unilaterally and unequivocally preserve the right to use force to defend our core interests.
But there are going to be a whole range of other situations where we do have an interest– we’d like to see a particular outcome. But on balance, the cost and benefits of military intervention don’t make sense. And you gotta look at each particular situation to say, “Given the tool kit that we have, given the cost and risk of military intervention– given the possibility that we may be able to apply diplomatic pressure in this situation– or political pressure and economic sanctions, and that might have a better outcome, you know, let’s figure out in that particular situation what we do.”
In Libya — that was a specific situation where we had a chance to save a lot of lives at relatively low risk to our troops in a broad international context. That may not be duplicated in other circumstances.
So when people hear words like, “values” and “interests,” and your phrase, “the flow of commerce,” which some people couldn’t help but substitute oil, they shouldn’t think that there is any blanket policy? This may be an ad hoc business if the so-called Arab Spring turns into Arab Summer, and we keep at this, watching countries change.
Well, what– what is absolutely true is that when you start applying blanket policies on the complexities of the current world situation, you’re going to get yourself into trouble. And I take the application of military force very seriously. Because even in a situation like Libya, there’s still risks involved. You saw that we had a plane malfunction.
Thank goodness we were able to retrieve those pilots – but, you know, it’s conceivable that they could’ve been lost. And so in each of these situations the application of force is something that, from my perspective, you preserve and are very careful to use.
That does not mean, though, that you don’t continue to apply all the other range of tools that you’ve got available to see if we can make a difference, and move history in a better direction. It’s in America’s interest for the Middle East and North Africa to be more Democratic, more free. The young people that we saw in Tahrir Square in Egypt– they represent a generation that had been starved for opportunity for decades.
And so we want to be on that side of history. But it is not going to be a smooth, even path. And there are going to be times where we have to make judgments where we’d like to see something happen and it doesn’t happen. But it’s doubtful that military intervention’s going to make that particular difference at that particular time.
And there are going to be some people who get frustrated by that. “Why can’t we fix this right away? Why can’t we simply impose our will?” And 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 the costs of that.
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