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President Obama to Address the Nation on Libya

Aired March 28, 2011 - 19:00   ET


JOHN KING, HOST: Good evening and welcome to our viewers in the United States and around the world. I'm John King in Washington.

In just 30 minutes the president of the United States delivers a nationally televised address on Libya. To make the case America's military involvement there is just and to promises the mission will be brief. He will be speaking from the National Defense University at the U.S. Army's Fort McNair right here in the nation's capital and speaking to a country that has mixed feelings about its third military intervention of the past decade, not to mention a country that is not convinced this mission has a clear goal or a clear exit strategy.

The commander in chief will be speaking to the United States Congress that is beginning to ask tough questions about how long this will go on, how much it will cost, and whether the mission is moving past protecting Libyan civilians to taking sides in a dangerous civil war. And President Obama will be speaking to a world wondering not only what comes next in Libya, but whether the decision to intervene there offers any precedent for how the United States and its allies might respond to violence against anti-government demonstrators in Yemen, Bahrain, Syria, and hot spots in the Middle East and North Africa.

Wolf Blitzer will rejoin us in just a moment in our special coverage before and after the president's big address, includes Anderson Cooper as well as reports from the White House, Capitol Hill and insights from experienced team and great experience team of analysts. But let's begin on the ground in Libya. Come with me. We'll go over and check out the map.

One clear result if you take a close look of the allied air strikes -- we pop the map out and look -- we move here -- I want to go back to March 18th. The day before the strikes began, the day before, you see right here in red, these were towns just before, just before the strikes began. Controlled red meaning controlled by the regime. Look at where we are today.

You see green. That is controlled by the opposition, so obviously some progress. Now the Pentagon insists it's not coordinating military strategy with this opposition but there's little doubt the effect of the bombing campaign has been to tilt the battlefield more in the opposition's favor. CNN's Arwa Damon is in Ajdabiya. She spent the day with opposition forces who are back in control of several of these key cities now in the east, but perhaps beginning to hit road blocks as they start and try to march west towards Libya. Arwa, what is the very latest and the sense of an opposition that is clearly resurgent, but, but beginning to face obstacles?

ARWA DAMON, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, John, it most certainly is. We saw the opposition moving fairly quickly thanks to those air strikes through critical oil towns like Brega and Ras Lanuf, but then today they hit a small town called Omer Algerdio (ph). This is getting closer to Sirte, Gadhafi's home town. These are tribal areas, pro Gadhafi and when they were in this town, they say they began to talk to residents. They say the residents were armed.

They are claiming with weapons that were provided to them by Gadhafi himself. They say that residents began to fire on them and there were families in this town as well and they claimed that they did not want to fire back. They beat a hasty retreat. As they were retreating they say they came underneath a hail of bullets. This most certainly, John, adds a very different dynamic to this already complex battlefield.

How is the opposition going to handle these civilian centers where there are Gadhafi loyalists willing to put up a fight and in this case what is the coalition going to do? Very big questions and most definitely a very big challenge ahead with grave concerns that this shift, as the opposition moves more towards Gadhafi's stronghold, the shift that perhaps could lead to even more bloodshed -- John.

KING: A defining challenge and a defining question for the president. Arwa Damon live for us tonight -- Arwa will be with us in our special coverage throughout the evening. And here at home President Obama faces a divided and a somewhat skeptical audience.

A new Pew Research Center survey out tonight found 47 percent of Americans think it was the right decision to launch air strikes in Libya. Thirty-six percent say it was wrong. Seventeen percent say they don't know what to make of it. Here's another huge challenge for the president. About four in 10 Americans see a clear goal for the military mission but half say there is no clear goal. And 11 percent just aren't sure.

Our senior White House correspondent Ed Henry is live with us now with more on this big test, Ed, for the president of the United States.

ED HENRY, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: That's right, John. And you know one thing that senior White House officials say the president wants to do tonight is sort of have a turning point in this conflict, sort of a pivot, if you will, to say look that he's been saying for more than a week now that this would be a short amount of time that the U.S. would take the lead role.

Now that NATO over the weekend said they would be in control, in command, this is a pivot point for the president to lay out, but there's one other number in that Pew Research Center poll that you mentioned. When asked how long the U.S. will be in a lead role, be there involved in this conflict, 60 percent saying for some time, 33 percent saying it will be pretty quick. That's just the opposite of the message the president wants to get across tonight.

And then second point is what you mentioned about whether or not there is some sort of a Libya precedent now that if the U.S. sees some situation in the Middle East, North Africa, will they intervene if there's a potential humanitarian crisis. White House officials got that question today. Would you intervene in Syria? Well no they say. They are not doing any planning for any military conflict in Syria.

What about Bahrain, Saudi Arabia? And so they are saying they're taking this by a case by case basis, but there's going to be more pressure in the wake of with this intervention in Libya for the U.S. to get involved in some of these other conflicts around the world -- John.

KING: Our senior White House correspondent Ed Henry also will be with us throughout our special coverage in the hours ahead. Let's go a quick thought now from two men well aware of the pressures facing the U.S. commander of chief and well aware of the global stakes in Libya. David Gergen has advised four U.S. presidents and former under Secretary of State Nicholas Burns served in wartime roles in the Clinton and both Bush administrations.

David Gergen, to you first, as someone who's been in the Oval Office working on a speech, you know you have a somewhat skeptical American public. You know you have an increasingly inquisitive United States Congress and to Ed Henry's big point and even probably more importantly to Arwa Damon's point, you have a coalition on the ground, an opposition on the ground -- excuse me -- that started moving west because of those air strikes. Once it hits a bump in the road, is it this president's moral obligation now to continue to support them?

DAVID GERGEN, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Yes, and I think the president's main goal tonight, John, is to go back to the axiom that came out of the Vietnam War for the commander in chief, before you commit the troops, commit the nation. In this case he committed the troops before he committed the nation, tonight he has to build public support for the long haul.

In the event this goes badly, in the event there's a stalemate, Gadhafi stays in power, he's got to have the public and the Congress behind him for the longer haul. This is his moment to do that. He does it through a clear speech about what his goals are and what is going to unfold in the next few weeks.

KING: But Nic Burns, he has said among his goals are absolutely under no circumstances U.S. military boots on the ground in Libya. He has said his goal is to get the United States out of the forefront and into a support role within a matter of days, if not hours. If the opposition on the ground hits resistance, starts getting beaten back by Gadhafi's forces, what does the president of the United States do?

NICHOLAS BURNS, FORMER UNDER SECRETARY OF STATE: Well John, I think there's a contradiction here. This is likely to be a protracted civil war in Libya and the president is obviously going to say we're handing all of this over to NATO, but which country is the strongest military power in NATO -- the United States of America. And if the European allies and NATO cannot manage to pursue this with the same intensity that the United States military has exhibited over the last week, they are likely to call upon the United States to do more and the U.S. will remain part of this coalition. I think that's part of the complexity of this and the contradictions inherit in his policy that the president will have to address this evening.

KING: Nic and David will be back with us in just a few minutes. But how has the coalition military campaign changed the balance of power on the ground in Libya? Let's take a look with retired General George Joulwan, who is the former NATO Supreme Allied Commander and General, I want to go to the map in a second and look at this (INAUDIBLE). But the president does not like the term war when it comes to this. You're a general. Is this a war? Is the United States at war?

GEN. GEORGE JOULWAN, FORMER NATO SUPREME ALLIED COMMANDER: When you talk about war I think you're talking about World War I, World War II. We're at many conflicts. This to me is a conflict. NATO really has taken the lead in this conflict, so I would not -- I would not use the term "war", but the guy on the ground that's getting shot at, it's like war.

KING: Let's take a look at the stakes here because the president of the United States addresses the American people tonight. I want to close the map and go back here to March 18th. Let me close this one down today and come back here. This is March 18th. This is the day before it all started. And here's -- you had the opposition -- you had opposition here -- let me pull this one out -- I'm sorry. Here's March 18th.

Gadhafi had taken all this back. Remember the opposition had surged this far to the west. Gadhafi took all this back. Then they get the coalition together by March 23rd, you start to see a little bit of opposition -- Ajdabiya back in play -- here's where we are today. This is because of the air strikes. And we can show what they look like -- punishing strikes.

Tomahawk cruise missiles, air strikes, the larger the star, the more power has been directed at that site. The opposition gets this far. This is your military that has done this, General. When they hit the wall as they started to hit in Sirte today, what is your obligation?

JOULWAN: Our obligation is what's been said all along, U.N. Resolution 1973, and I believe what you see here is a more active role for NATO, a more active role for the U.N. and a more active role for the Arab states. That's been missing in this debate.

KING: I read and reread and reread the resolution today. It talks about protecting Libyan civilians. It talks about stopping a brutal dictator from massacring his own people. It does not talk about softening the battlefield so that the opposition can go this way. Is that not in fact what has happened in the last 72 hours?

JOULWAN: No, not at least by the United States. I think what has happened is that the rebels have started to get some momentum. How far that momentum goes, it's up to the rebels and up to Gadhafi. I don't really think you're really going to see -- let me use my term here -- U.S. direct air strikes in support of a rebel advance. I would be very much surprised to see that. But NATO now, it's a political body is in charge. The NATO command structure is now coming into place and it will be a NATO decision how far to go.

KING: A NATO decision, yet as the president of the United States addressing the American tonight, in a sentence or two, what do you see as a general as his biggest challenge?

JOULWAN: His biggest challenge is going to be to convince, I think, the American people this is the right thing to do through NATO and with U.N. support.

KING: Not an American lead role -- The general will be with us throughout the program as well, much more of our special coverage just ahead including the tough questions Congress wants answered tonight and back live to Libya for a sense of what Moammar Gadhafi might be thinking.


KING: You're looking at live pictures of the National Defense University. That's at the Army's Fort McNair here in Washington, D.C. just moments away from the president of the United States delivering a speech to the American people and of course to the world about the U.S. role in the military intervention now under way in Libya. One point President Obama will stress in that nationally televised address tonight is that the U.S. military role will be limited both in time and in scope, meaning days, not weeks for air strikes and other combat roles and then the president will say much more of a support role helping European and Arab partners in the coalition.

Many of you are skeptical. The new Pew Research Center survey just out tonight found six in 10 Americans think the U.S. military involvement will last for some time. How long is just one of the questions posed today by the Senate top Republican?


SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL (R-KY), MINORITY LEADER: What national security interest of the United States justified the risk of American life? What is the role of our country and Libya's ongoing civil war?


KING: Two of the many questions there. Senior congressional correspondent Dana Bash joins us now with more on the president's challenge with the Congress -- Dana.

DANA BASH, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, John, look, I think it's really without question that the president is giving the speech tonight in large part because of the barrage of criticism that he has been getting from both parties in Congress and specifically the idea that many people think he simply has not defined the mission and offered some contradictory assessments of what exactly the U.S. objective is there.

I walked the halls here earlier and talked to senators in both parties and it was actually pretty stunning how similar they told me that the questions that they had for the president tonight, what they want him to answer, things like what is the mission there? You mentioned the fact that he is going to say it's a limited role.

Well what is that limited role? What is the U.S. objective in Libya? That's another thing. And the other thing is what is the end game? What is the exit strategy? That is something that members in both parties really emphasized. Even senators who have supported the mission so far, they say look, it cannot be open ended. We want to know what the U.S. commitment is going to be and how long it is going to there. This is a Congress that is definitely wary of campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan. Obviously this is much smaller scale but it's still means manpower and it still means money -- John.

KING: A lot of money -- Dana Bash our senior congressional correspondent on Capitol Hill tonight. Joining me here in the studio, Wolf Blitzer, my colleague, friend and the anchor of "THE SITUATION ROOM". It's fascinating to watch this. Here is a president -- it's the first time he has launched a military action.

He inherited Iraq. He inherited Afghanistan. We're watching him tonight trying to explain to the American people something that is counter to everything he wanted as president of the United States. He wanted to focus on the economy. He wanted to focus on jobs. And now he finds himself in a military intervention but, yes, he will say it will be as short as possible. But once you start, we both know from our days at the White House, you never know.

WOLF BLITZER, HOST, "THE SITUATION ROOM": You never know where it's going to wind up because it's easier to get into a war than it is necessarily to get out of a war. I'll be curious to see if he declares almost as he did almost over the weekend in that radio and Internet address, mission accomplished. He's not going to say mission accomplished because the mission has not yet been accomplished.

If you believe what he has said repeatedly over these past several weeks, the mission won't be accomplished until Gadhafi is gone, until there is regime change in Libya, even though the U.N. Security Council resolution authorizing the NATO, the coalition operation doesn't call for Gadhafi to be gone.

KING: And so that's what makes the moment so fascinating. The president of the United States wants to say what the United States is doing is right. What the coalition is doing is just. However, his personal and the country's policy now is regime change, but that, as you said, is not called for in the U.N. resolution and yet many make the argument that the coalition, including the U.S. Air Force has essentially been the opposition Air Force in recent days, bombing tanks, bombing military facilities, bombing command and control centers to make it easier for the opposition to move and yet a key U.S. general told you just the other day (INAUDIBLE) saying that's not the strategy. The United States is hitting military targets, but not with the overt goal of helping the opposition. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GEN. CARTER HAM, CMDR. U.S. AFRICA COMMAND: Our mission is not to support the opposition forces. Our opposition is to prevent civilian casualties. Now, there's a linkage there. Those who are causing civilian casualties are regime forces, so when we destroy or degrade the capability of regime forces, then certainly we are doing that and there is some benefit to the opposition. But we do not operate in direct support of the opposition forces.


KING: General Ham almost makes it sound like a coincidence you know that well we're bombing these targets, and it benefits the opposition, and I guess the question is, and again, I keep asking it because I don't really know the answer. It hasn't been explained by the leadership -- is you've chosen sides in a civil war. You say Gadhafi must go. You take these steps to relieve first the attack on the opposition, now to soften the battlefield for them. When they hit as they did today, the wall as they approach Sirte, as they move further west when perhaps the civilians aren't on their side like they are in the east, what does the coalition do then?

BLITZER: You know it's a great question. And you know General Ham is an excellent general. I knew him in Iraq in (INAUDIBLE) when I was up there and he did a good interview with me, but he makes it sound as if the U.S. and its coalition partners are Switzerland in this war that's going on between the rebels and Gadhafi's forces. And we all know the U.S. and the coalition and NATO, they are not Switzerland.

They are taking a direct role to try to help the opposition defeat Gadhafi, not only save themselves and save all of those civilians who potentially could have been slaughtered in Benghazi and elsewhere but to go ahead and help them defeat Moammar Gadhafi, even though they say that's not the stated military objective. For all practical purposes, it clearly is, so the president is going to have to walk that delicate line. I don't know if he will say Gadhafi must go tonight.

I don't know if he'll use the "W" word war tonight. I don't know if he'll get into the details of how much this is costing the American taxpayers, but those are certainly the questions that a lot of members of Congress have been pressing for and he's under a great deal of pressure to provide answers.

KING: A great deal of pressure and we're just moments away from the president's speech. Wolf will stay with us until the speech. And he'll be leading our special coverage after the speech as well. We'll be right back. A live report from Tripoli -- we'll go there to see what Moammar Gadhafi might be thinking at this moment and as you can see, the National Defense University right here Fort McNair, high stakes for the president of the United States just moments away.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) KING: Live pictures there of the National Defense University, that's at the Army's Fort McNair right here in the nation's capital of Washington, D.C., just moments away from the president of the United States, Barack Obama, explaining to the American people, to the United States Congress and indeed to a global audience the stakes of the military conflict in Libya and the U.S. role in the days and weeks ahead.

As we await the president, let's go live to Tripoli. Our senior international correspondent Nic Robertson is there. Nic, you are out seeing a sense of the changing battlefield today out in Mesrata on a trip in which you were taken by the Gadhafi regime. What is your sense of what the regime is looking for right now as the president of the United States addresses this conflict?

NIC ROBERTSON, CNN SR. INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: I think they'd want to hear that the international community is going to back away of coalition strikes here; I think that we're going to see Gadhafi try to ride out this storm. He still thinks he is managing to do it, he's losing territory to the rebels, but when you talk to officials here in the capital, everyone says this is a guy who's willing to take the fight to the end.

I think we've learned something very important in the past couple of days. Gadhafi essentially has said that he would go down and the country would go down burning around him. Well guess what -- the rebels took those important oil and gas towns Ras Lanuf, Brega, took them before Gadhafi or without Gadhafi setting fire to them. That's perhaps an important indication here of the way he's going to play this out.

He may not go down in flames as he is predicting, but at the moment there doesn't seem to be any cracks in his leadership. I talked to a top diplomat here last night very familiar with Gadhafi, he admits Gadhafi's got faults, has made plenty of mistakes recently handling this, handling the past few years without reforms. But he says the man is not a guy who's going to back down quickly, readily, and easily -- John.

KING: Nic Robertson will be with us throughout the evening. Not back down easily -- General Joulwan is back with us. General, as a military commander, the president of the United States has said publicly Gadhafi must go. It is not the mandate this coalition is operating under from the United Nations. Does that mixed message complicate your job as a military commander at this delicate moment?

JOULWAN: Well you always look for my favorite word is clarity. I think we're getting that now. The political decision making has shifted to NATO. That's a very important issue here and those decisions will be made at NATO. The U.S. has great influence at NATO, but those sorts of decisions how far they will go --

KING: But if President Obama, President Sarkozy say Gadhafi must go, but the resolution empowering these troops does not say Gadhafi must go, how do you keep going? JOULWAN: Well it's going to be a political decision. Whether that comes from the U.N., NATO, the Organization of African States, it has to be a political decision that has to be made to the military commanders.

KING: Let's bring David Gergen, our CNN analyst, and Nic Burns, a former under secretary of state back into the conversation and Nic I want to go to you first. You served as the U.S. ambassador to NATO. General Joulwan says you have more clarity now.

Do you think you have enough clarity given that the political leadership behind this coalition again says Gadhafi must go? But the generals on the ground say that's not their order so they are not to attack him. And the question now is, as the opposition tries to move west, will they continue to help?

BURNS: Well John, I think it's going to get complicated for NATO from here on in for two reasons. First NATO is a fractious alliance and if Turkey and Germany have only given grudging support until now, you might see an attempt within NATO to go for a cease fire between Gadhafi and the rebels in the next couple of days or couple of weeks if this war does not finish.

And secondly, as I said before, there's going to be an inevitable attempt to bring the United States back into a leading role because our European allies are stalwart, but they don't have the military capacity of the United States. They don't have the strategic commitment of the United States to this part of the world and so I think that it's going to be difficult for the president to say to the American people, we are out and NATO is in when he United States is the backbone of NATO.

KING: David Gergen, I want you to listen to Bob Gates, the defense secretary, one of the reasons many Republicans in Congress are giving the president a little bit of slack is because they respect the holdover from the Bush administration, Bob Gates. But you have U.S. pilots in the air. You have U.S. ships at sea. You have other U.S. support operations and yet Secretary Gates says this is important to the United States, but it doesn't reach the ultimate threshold for national security.


ROBERT GATES, DEFENSE SECRETARY: No, it was not -- it was not a vital national interest to the United States, but it was an interest and it was an interest for all of the reasons Secretary Clinton talked about, the engagement of the Arabs, the engagement of the Europeans, the general humanitarian question that was at stake.


KING: He also went on to say there have been revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, both on either side of Libya. David Gergen, is that clarity to you?

GERGEN: I think it's truth. I'm not sure it's clarity. And I do want to emphasize -- I have some differences with my good friend, General Joulwan. By handing this off to NATO and making a big deal of this tonight, yes, it does change who leads the operation. But as I think Nic Burns is right, the United States having committed -- having carried out the 1,600 sorties so far, 1,000 of them by the United States. The United States -- the United States tomahawks, it really chanted the dynamics of this.

The United States cannot simply wash its hands of the outcome now in Libya. If there is a stalemate, the United States is going to have to be involved in a serious way. What happens if Gadhafi leaves office? The United States is going to have to be involved in a serious way. I hope tonight we're not going to hear, well we've done our job, we're out of here. It's over to NATO. Forget about us. I hope tonight we're going to hear actually a more realistic speech about what is likely to happen down the road and what he is prepared what the United States will do under those circumstances.

KING: And you can see Vice President Biden, Secretary Gates taking their seats in the VIP section. We're just moments away from the president of the United States. That is the National Defense University. It is part of the Army's Fort McNair right here in Washington, D.C. And Wolf, we're talking about the global stakes here. There is an important global message for the president to send tonight as the leader of the NATO alliance, as the commander in chief of the United States, the world's great super power. However, there's a domestic, political message too not only about what is our mission, how much will it cost, how long will it last. They're in a country with nine percent unemployment where he came to office as the guy in the Democratic primaries who opposed the Iraq war, who wanted to get the resources of the government focused back on domestic challenges here at home.

BORGER: He's got three real audiences that he's addressing tonight. Certainly the American people first and foremost. He's got to explain what the United States is doing. Then he's got the people of Libya, especially Gadhafi, his sons, the Libyan military. He's going to try to convince them it's over. Give up.

You know your days are numbered. You can survive if you give up now. Otherwise, it's over. And then the region in the world -- he's speaking to the entire world. He's speaking to the Arab world, the Muslim world, and he's got some specific points he's certainly going to make to them as well. This is one of those speeches, John, as you know all of us know who have covered presidents they work for hours and days. Every sentence is carefully, carefully weighed for what it could mean, the symbolism, the direct point, and I'm sure this speech will have those nuances as well.

KING: Reminded of the note, President George H.W. Bush left for Bill Clinton, saying I know you want to focus like a laser beam on the economy. But when you're president of the United States, every problem of the world comes into your inbox." This president of the United States --

BLITZER: The Middle East is on fire right now. The whole region is exploding. UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You got six or seven other countries that this will set the precedent for. And I think we have to understand that.

KING: Does it set a precedent? That's an interesting point the general makes, Wolf, in the sense that the government of Bahrain has fired on its people. The government of Syria is firing on its people. The government of Yemen has acted aggressively and fired on its people. And so, in those countries, if you are an anti-government, pro-democracy demonstrator, do you have a right to say, why does the president have a double standard?

BLITZER: The ultimate example of that and it would be a very difficult question for any American president to answer, if a similar revolt happened in Iran and the regime there decided that they were going to potentially slaughter thousands of people -- does the U.S. and the Europeans and NATO and the rest of the region stay on the sidelines and let these people die or use this Libyan example as a precedent?

KING: Which I think makes it very interesting, as we prepare, just seconds away from the president, as to how big is this speech? Is it just about Libya? Is it just about the U.S. role? Or does he spend some time talking about the changes in the region, the challenges in the region and his approach going forward to a situation that's certainly doesn't a one size fits all solution?

The president of the United States is about to speak. This is the National Defense University of Fort McNair right here in Washington, D.C.