CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story mischaracterized Obama's statements on Qaddafi. The president has previously commented on the Libyan dictator's death.
President Obama said the death of Muammar el-Qaddafi sends a “strong message” to dictators around the world to respect human rights and their peoples’ desire for political reform.
“[Qaddafi] is somebody who, for 40 years, has terrorized his country and supported terrorism,” Obama said during an appearance on The Tonight Show With Jay Leno that aired late Tuesday. "And he had an opportunity during the Arab spring to finally let loose of his grip on power and to peacefully transition into democracy. We gave him ample opportunity, and he wouldn't do it.”
Despite months of NATO bombing and the months of fighting in Libya, Qaddafi refused to surrender even after the Libyan rebels took over the capital, Tripoli. “You never like to see anybody come to the kind of end that he did,” Obama told Leno, “but I think it obviously sends a strong message around the world to dictators that people long to be free, and they need to respect the human rights and universal aspirations of people.”
Obama has also called on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to step down and quit the bloody crackdown on his people, and has pushed Yemen’s President Ali Abdullah Saleh to begin a transition from power under an agreement brokered by Gulf states.
Qaddafi’s death is not “something that I think we should relish,” Obama said, commenting on televised images of Qaddafi’s grisly demise after an attack on his convoy. Obama pointed to the administration’s decision not to release the photograph of al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden after he was killed by U.S. operatives in May, saying: “I think that there’s a certain decorum with which you treat the dead even if it’s somebody who has done terrible things.”
Obama went on to defend the U.S. role in Libya, saying that the administration did not “lead from behind” by allowing an international coalition to carry out the bulk of the air strikes on Qaddafi’s ground targets. “We lead from the front,” Obama said, noting that the U.S. introduced the resolution in the United Nations to protect civilians and the U.S. led the initial operation to establish the no-fly zone.
“The difference here is we were able to organize the international community,” Obama said. “…So there was never this sense that somehow we were unilaterally making a decision to take out somebody.” This is why the operation cost only $1 billion, and not a single troop was killed or injured, he said to applause from the audience. “That, I think, is a recipe for success in the future.”
Obama also talked up his recent announcement that the remaining 43,000 troops would leave Iraq by the end of the year, even though the White House had until recently been trying to persuade the Iraqis to allow several thousand American troops to stay past the deadline. The Iraqis “now have the opportunity to create their own democracy, their own country, determine their own destiny,” Obama said.
“I'm cautiously optimistic that they realize that the way they should resolve conflict is not through killing each other but, rather, through dialogue and discussion and debate,” Obama said. “And so that would not have been possible had it not been for the extraordinary sacrifices not just of our armed forces, but also their families.”
Host Jay Leno noted that many GOP members of Congress opposed the announcement that all the troops would be withdrawing from Iraq save a limited presence attached to the U.S. Embassy and its consulates. “It's shocking that they opposed something I proposed,” Obama said, to which the audience laughed, whistled, and applauded.
With more than 4,000 Americans killed and tens of thousands injured, and close to $1 trillion spent, Obama said “the vast majority of the American people feel as if it is time to bring this war to a close.”
Obama was also asked about speculation that Vice President Joe Biden might swap jobs with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton in a second term.
“Joe Biden is not only a great vice president, but he has been a great adviser and a great friend to me. So I think that they are doing great where they are, and both of them are racking up a lot of miles,” Obama said. Though Biden tends to go more to Pittsburgh while Clinton heads to Pakistan, Obama said, both have "important work" to do.
When asked whether he'd been watching any of the GOP debates, Obama said: "I'm going to wait until everybody is voted off the island before ... once they narrow it down to one or two, I'll start paying attention."