The White House announced late Friday that President Obama will speak to the nation on Monday about the U.S. role in Libya. The announcement capped a day of diplomacy as U.S. warplanes continued to pummel Libyan leader Muammar el-Qaddafi’s military assets as the United States remains in control of the mission to protect civilians until NATO deliberations are concluded, a top Pentagon official said on Friday.
The announcement said Obama will address the country on the situation in Libya at 7:30 p.m. Monday from the National Defense University as the U.S. prepares to hand over operational command of enforcing the Libya no-fly zone to NATO forces.
Despite word that NATO had agreed to assume command of the maritime embargo mission off Libya’s coast and control of the no-fly-zone effort, it remained unclear on Friday when the United States will transfer the lead on the effort to protect civilians from Qaddafi’s ground forces. Obama, who promised the operation would be turned over in "days, not weeks," kept largely out of the public eye, consulting in the morning with his national-security staff and speaking by telephone with U.S. lawmakers in the afternoon.
White House press secretary Jay Carney said that Obama was planning to address the public on the situation in Libya "in the very near future," but not on Friday.
The situation was far from clear, as Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton insisted on Thursday night that all 28 members of NATO had agreed to assume command and control of the whole Libyan operation.
An administration official later insisted that NATO had agreed to include the ground operations against Qaddafi's forces. "There is now a consensus by [all] members of the alliance that NATO should include in its mission and under its command and control not just the no-fly zone but also the need to protect civilians.”
"So, within a matter of days, NATO will have taken over command and control of the entire operation,” the official said.
At the Pentagon on Friday, Vice Adm. William Gortney, director of the Joint Staff, said that “discussions are ongoing at the political level” over who would assume command of the mission against Qaddafi's ground forces. In supporting the U.N. resolution authorizing the operation against Libya, the United States had insisted that it go beyond a no-fly zone.
Gortney declined to speculate on who would take it over, but he said it would be either NATO or an individual country. The United States, he added, will remain in control “until such time the coalition is ready to assume it.”
State Department spokesman Mark Toner said NATO members are expected to decide on Sunday or Monday on “the broader civilian protection mission.”
With no coalition troops on the ground in Libya, efforts to protect civilians include air strikes on Libyan command-control and logistics capabilities, as well as the forces themselves.
Meanwhile, a commander of the NATO effort to enforce the no-fly zone has yet to be named. NATO’s top military commander is U.S. Adm. James Stavridis, although Canadian Lt. Gen. Charles Bouchard has reportedly been tapped for the job.
Choosing Bouchard over Stavridis would put a new face on the international effort and help the Obama administration avert criticisms that the United States would effectively remain in the lead of the operations.
While NATO is taking over the effort to patrol Libyan skies to maintain the no-fly zone, U.S. forces--particularly aerial refueling tankers and intelligence and surveillance capabilities--will be tapped for the operation.
Carney told reporters at the White House that Obama was updating lawmakers on the situation in Libya and welcomed their input. He again dismissed suggestions that the president should have waited for congressional go-ahead to proceed against Libya.
A spokesman said House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, appreciated the update "but 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.”
Asked how long the mission could last, Carney said, “The mission … is to protect Libyan civilians, and that mission continues as long as Libyan civilians are threatened by Qaddafi’s forces."
Rebecca Kaplan contributed