WASHINGTON — After weeks of hesitation and divisions among his advisers, President Barack Obama on Friday endorsed military action against Libya's Moammar Gadhafi, saying U.S. values and credibility are at stake to stop "the potential for mass murder" of innocents.
The U.S. military, which is already stretched thin by two wars and an expanding effort to assist disaster victims in Japan, would take a supporting role, Obama said, with European and Arab partners in the lead. He explicitly ruled out sending American ground forces into the North African nation.
A wide range of U.S. firepower stood ready, including Navy ships and submarines capable of launching Tomahawk cruise missiles with high-explosive warheads that could destroy air defense sites and other potential targets in the earliest stages of any allied military action.
Obama avoids the word 'war'
In solemn remarks at the White House, Obama never used the word "war," but that is what U.S. forces could face if Gadhafi refuses to comply with United Nations demands. It is widely anticipated that a first step in imposing a no-fly zone over Libya — a tactic aimed at keeping Gadhafi's planes from attacking — would be assaults on the country's coastal air defenses.
President lists several reasons for military use
Obama offered a string of reasons for committing to military action.
"Left unchecked, we have every reason to believe that Gadhafi would commit atrocities against his people," he said. "Many thousands could die. A humanitarian crisis would ensue. The entire region could be destabilized, endangering many of our allies and partners. The calls of the Libyan people for help would go unanswered. The democratic values that we stand for would be overrun."
That marked a major shift from the public caution expressed until recent days by Obama's top national security advisers, Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and the chairman of the joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Mike Mullen. All had said that a no-fly zone or other military action would be a difficult undertaking tantamount to war, or that it could have unintended consequences.
Europe backs military acton
Europeian leaders have been keen to show support for the Libyan rebels, but the United States had hung back until this week.
The administration was divided for weeks over how to address the situation in Libya, which differed from other Arab revolts when it moved from a political uprising to an armed insurrection against a strongman.
Military leaders were most cautious, arguing that a rush to show solidarity with the rebels might be shortsighted. Clinton and some other top diplomats were in the middle, with some White House advisers and U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice apparently most ready to back the use of force.
Gates slow to accept military action
In remarks to Congress earlier this month, Gates spoke skeptically of the wisdom of military intervention in Libya. He argued that because imposition of a no-fly zone would require attacks first on Libyan air defenses, the operation would be tantamount to going to war.
The Gates view seemed to resonate in the administration until the Arab League last weekend called for U.S. authorization of a no-fly zone. At that point the prevailing U.S. sentiment seemed to shift in favor of pressing for a U.N. Security Council resolution and subsequently giving Gadhafi an ultimatum.
Obama said he was dispatching Clinton to Paris for a meeting Saturday to discuss with British, French and other partner countries the next steps in Libya. The president said he directed Gates to coordinate military planning, which has been in the works for weeks while the administration pondered the ramifications of getting involved militarily while also fighting wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The president made no reference to a Libya's declaration of an immediate cease-fire on Friday — a statement that a rebel spokesman said was fiction.
Instead, Obama listed a series of demands for Gadhafi, including the halting of all attacks against civilians, a stop to military action against the rebel-controlled city of Benghazi and other cities and permission for international humanitarian supplies to reach civilians displaced by the violence.
"Let me be clear, these terms are not negotiable," he said.
The president was equally clear that the U.S. would not act alone.
"American leadership is essential, but that does not mean acting alone -- it means shaping the conditions for the international community to act together," he said.