Obama seeks to assure lawmakers on Libya strategy

Reuters News

3/25/2011 7:09:46 PM - Reuters News

By Patricia Zengerle and Susan Cornwell

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama told U.S. lawmakers on Friday American military forces are not seeking to topple Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi from power but are engaged in a limited effort to protect civilians.

After days of complaints that he had not properly consulted Congress, Obama and top aides held an hour-long conference call from the White House Situation Room and briefed Democratic and Republican leaders.

Lawmakers said Obama stuck to his position that while U.S. policy favors Gaddafi's departure, the U.S. involvement in support of a U.N. Security Council resolution was limited to stopping Gaddafi from killing Libyans opposed to his rule.

Both Democrats and Republicans had questioned Obama's handling of the six-day conflict. The Republican speaker of the House of Representatives, John Boehner, charged that Obama committed forces to battle without properly defining the mission.

Obama will address the American people about the Libyan mission on Monday at 7:30 p.m. EDT, the White House said, when he speaks at the National Defense University in Washington.

On Friday, Obama told lawmakers about plans for the U.S. transfer of military command and control of the Libyan operation to NATO and progress so far, the White House said.

"The goals here were very very limited. We are not trying to go and get involved in a war with Libya, and force militarily, a change of leadership," Representative Adam Smith, senior Democrat on the House of Representatives Armed Services Committee, told CNN. "We were simply trying to stop a humanitarian crisis."

Senator John McCain, the Senate Armed Services Committee's top Republican, raised concerns on the call on whether the U.S. intervention was enough to force Gaddafi from power.

"Senator McCain supports the decision to intervene militarily in Libya, but he remains concerned that our actions at present may not be sufficient to avoid a stalemate and accomplish the U.S. objective of forcing Gaddafi to leave power," McCain spokeswoman Brooke Buchanan said.

BOEHNER: MORE NEEDS TO BE DONE

Boehner spokesman Kevin Smith said the speaker "still believes much more needs to be done by the administration to provide clarity, particularly to the American people, on the military objective in Libya, America's role, and how it is consistent with U.S. policy goals."

House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi said Obama told lawmakers that the "limited" intervention had saved lives. She said lawmakers will receive a classified briefing from the administration next week.

Many liberals in Obama's Democratic Party oppose a third war in the Muslim world on top of U.S. troop commitments in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Two House members, Republican Justin Amash and Democrat Dennis Kucinich, plan to introduce separate pieces of legislation to halt U.S. military operations in Libya. But it was uncertain whether either would be brought to a vote, and Congress is unlikely to act on anything right away.

U.S. Ambassador to Libya Gene Cretz told reporters in Washington that the United States was increasingly confident Libya's National Transitional Council was on the right track, but was still not ready to formally recognize it as France has done.

Cretz said the United States was considering further steps to support the opposition, including its request for arms transfers, but that no decisions had been reached.

"The full gamut of potential assistance that we might offer both on the nonlethal and the lethal side is a subject of discussion within the U.S. government, but there have been no final decisions made," Cretz said.

A U.S. official said rebel leaders indicated they are trying to garner financial support from Gulf state governments. But several U.S. and European officials said little outside aid was going to the Libyan opposition.

A European national security official said the rebels still have access to more weapons looted from government arsenals than they are capable of using to their full capacity.

(Additional reporting by Tabassum Zakaria, Andrew Quinn, Steve Holland, and Mark Hosenball; Editing by Mohammad Zargham and Vicki Allen)