President Barack Obama said yesterday that he is confident the coalition of nations involved in Libyan military operations will be able to resolve their command disagreements as he defended U.S. involvement in the strikes.
Speaking to reporters in El Salvador, where he met with President Mauricio Funes, Obama said a command transition orchestrated by members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization will be done “over the next several days.”
“I have absolutely no doubt that we will be able to transfer control of this operation to an international coalition,” Obama said at a press conference with Funes in San Salvador.
Obama cut short his trip, skipping a planned tour of Mayan ruins, and was to return to the White House at about 5 p.m. Washington time today. Obama’s three-nation Latin American trip that was overshadowed by the U.S.-led military action against Libya began March 19.
Before leaving El Salvador today, Obama planned to meet by conference call with his national security team as NATO allies debated in Brussels on the next phase of the military action to protect Libyans from attacks by leader Muammar Qaddafi’s troops.
At the news conference in El Salvador, Obama also said U.S. involvement in the operation to establish a “no-fly” zone in Libya to blunt attacks on civilians and opposition forces is in the U.S.’s vital interest to stop a “brutal dictator.”
“At the end of the day, the American people are going to feel satisfied that lives were saved,” he said. “Very shortly we’re going to be able to say we’ve achieved the objective of a no-fly zone.”
Obama linked the fighting in Libya to demonstrations that toppled autocratic regimes in Egypt and Tunisia. He said a victory for Qaddafi in Libya could imperil progress in those nations.
“We have a huge national interest in making sure that those are successful,” he said. “They become models for peaceful transitions.”
About a dozen countries, including the U.S., France, Italy and the U.K., are involved in the fifth day of military operations in Libya, and are split over what command role to assign to NATO.
The U.K. and Italy want NATO to take over the leadership of military operations in Libya, a step resisted by France and other members of the alliance, including Turkey, and some of the Arab nations backing the air campaign.
Obama said the U.S. took command at the start of the campaign because of the “unique capabilities” of its military for the initial attack on Libyan air defenses. France, Italy and the U.K. are among other nations involved in the operation, which was authorized by a United Nations Security Council resolution.
While he deals with a dispute within the international alliance, the president is also being pressed by Republicans and some Democrats in Congress to provide a clearer explanation for the U.S. action in Libya and to address concerns about whether there is an exit strategy.
Obama said that the U.S. won’t bear all the costs of the campaign and that so far the U.S. contribution is “relatively modest.”
“We’re confident this is something we can budget as part of our overall operations,” he said.
The U.S. has spent at least $168 million during the first stage of the campaign, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.
Obama spoke yesterday with French President Nicolas Sarkozy and U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron, and the three agreed that NATO should have a “key role” in the command of the air campaign, Ben Rhodes, the U.S. deputy national security adviser for strategic communications, told reporters.
The allies are considering a proposal, backed by France, to create a political steering committee that would oversee military operations using NATO’s command structure. It would consist of the 12 nations that have committed to participating, according to a Western diplomat familiar with the discussions who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Sarkozy, one of the most vocal proponents of the no-fly zone, said full command by NATO risked prejudicing non-NATO Arab forces. Germany and Turkey, two NATO members, have opposed putting the alliance in charge.
Turkey may be key in the debate. Obama and Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan spoke by telephone yesterday and “reaffirmed their support” for the UN mandate, the White House said in a statement. Still, the Turkish leader was noncommittal about future support of the operation, Rhodes said.
The coalition arrayed against Libya includes non-NATO countries, and “not every single NATO ally is going to be participating in the enforcement of the no-fly zone,” Rhodes said.
U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates told reporters in Moscow yesterday that “the question is if there is a way we can work out NATO’s command-and-control machinery without it being a NATO mission and without a NATO flag.”
The strikes were launched in response to gains by forces loyal to Qaddafi in putting down a rebellion aimed at toppling his government. Qaddafi’s forces last week had closed in on the rebel stronghold of Benghazi after recapturing almost all the towns they lost during the uprising.
The turmoil in North Africa and the Middle East, triggered by the revolt that ousted President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia on Jan. 14, led to the removal of President Hosni Mubarak in Egypt as well as protests in Saudi Arabia and Syria and an uprising against the Sunni monarchy in Bahrain.
The situation in Libya has overshadowed each of Obama’s stops on his five-day visit to Latin America. He arrived in El Salvador yesterday from Chile and was in Brazil over the weekend. He returns to the White House this evening.
The trip is aimed at deepening trade ties with the region, including openings for U.S. companies in the region’s energy development and infrastructure-building.