Obama's Answer to the Question, 'Why Libya?'

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After a week of buzz about Obama's hesitancy to take action against Col. Muammar Qaddafi, many people weren't happy when Obama finally did so this weekend.

Among the questions that arose: Why strike only Libya, when other regimes murder their citizens too? Why do so without a congressional vote? Do we know exactly what we're getting into, and would the humanitarian cost of Qaddafi's ouster outweight the benefits of preventing a brutal siege of Benghazi? Has the U.S. military become, essentially, the army of the UN?

Obama answered some of those questions today, when he was asked at a press conference in Chile--his first since the airstrikes began--to square the U.S. policy that Qaddafi has lost legitimacy with the limited scope of the mission.

His answer: The U.S. is striking Libya to enforce a UN mandate. While this action meshes with Obama's specific stance on Qaddafi, he didn't authorize it because of that stance. The consensus of the international community, in other words, motivated it.

The UN security council approved a resolution demanding a ceasefire and authorized member states to take "all necessary measures" to protect Libyan civilians. The U.S. military is leading the strikes.

From Obama's response:

First of all, I think it's very easy to square our military actions and our stated policies. Our military action is in support of an international mandate form the Security Council that specifically focuses on the humanitarian threat posed by Col. Qaddafi to his people. Not only has he carried out murders of civilians, but he threatened more--said very specifically, 'We will show no mercy to people who lived in Benghazi,' and in the face of that the international community rallied and said we have to stop any potential atrocities inside of Libya and provide a broad mandate to accomplish that specific task.

As part of that international coalition, I authorized the U.S. military to work with our international partners to fulfill that mandate. Now, I have also stated that it is U.S. policy that Qaddafi needs to go, and we've got a wide range of tools in addition to our military efforts to support that policy. We were very rapid in initializing unilateral sanctions and then helping to mobilize international sanctions against that regime. We froze assets that Qaddafi might have used to further empower himself ...

So there are a whole range of policies that we are putting in place that have created one of the most powerful international consensuses around the isolation of Mr. Qaddafi, and we will pursue those, but when it comes to our military action, we are doing so in support of UN resolution 1973 ...

So, for Obama's critics wondering, "Why Libya, and Libya alone?" Obama's answer seems to be: because the UN Security Council turned its attention toward Libya, and not other places.

To those wondering whether the U.S. is biting off more than it can chew, Obama stressed that "the way the U.S. took leadership and managed this process ensures international legitimacy and ensures that members of the international coalition are bearing the burden of following through on the mission as well."

In his two public justifications of U.S. participation with European allies in these airstrikes, Obama has stressed international cooperation. The consensus of the international community seems to be the largest factor in his reasoning.

Which answers some questions, but leaves others in a stalemate. The criticism that responds to Obama most directly, it seems, is coming from Neocons like John Bolton and Rick Santorum, who warn that a UN mandate has supplanted domestic U.S. political imperatives.

Drop-down bar thumbnail credit: AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais

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Chris Good is a political reporter for ABC News. He was previously an associate editor at The Atlantic and a reporter for The Hill.

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