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Obama's Libyan defense

President Barack Obama answers question on the ongoing situation in Libya during his joint news conference with President of El Salvador Mauricio Funes at the National Palace in San Salvador, El Salvador, Tuesday, March 22, 2011.
AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais
President Barack Obama answers question on the ongoing situation in Libya during his joint news conference with President of El Salvador Mauricio Funes at the National Palace in San Salvador, El Salvador, Tuesday, March 22, 2011.
AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais

Monday night, President Obama will address the nation to answer questions about the U.S. role in Libya's internal struggle and his notion of America's foreign policy.

At this point, the stated mission for the U.S. and the coalition force has been to lead and fund the execution of United Nations Security Council Resolution 1973 to protect the Libyan people from harm by pro-Qaddafi forces.

In his Saturday radio address, Mr. Obama said that Qaddafi "has lost the confidence of his people and the legitimacy to rule, and the aspirations of the Libyan people must be realized."

But specific U.S. policy, as expressed by the president, calls for "regime change," which means that Qaddafi and his family will need to give up power. That said, the military mission targeting Qaddafi military installations and troops is not "targeting" Qaddafi for elimination.

Instead, the U.S. is seemingly sending a message to military supporters of Qaddafi, encouraging them to abandon their leader, hoping they will do the job of eliminating him from the country or earthly existence.

"Qaddafi could see elements of his military turning, deciding this is a no-win proposition," Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said on Face the Nation Sunday. "The family is splitting. Any number of possibilities are out there, as long as the international pressure continues and those around him see no future in staying with him."

Robert Gates
CBS/Chris Usher

Gates added: "One should not underestimate the possibility of the regime itself cracking I would not be hanging any new pictures if I were him."

Even if Qaddafi, who has a long history of brutal acts in his 41 years in power, were to leave or be killed (or continue to rule a portion of Libya), a more democratic future is not guaranteed for the country. The U.S. isn't going to get involved in another costly theater of war on the edges, and if the U.S. won't it's not likely that its allies will fill the gap if Libya becomes a slog.

So, this leaves several questions for the president to answer:

What is the plan for the U.S. in Libya beyond letting NATO and the Europeans do more of the heavy lifting and continuing to put pressure on Qaddafi with various sanctions, military actions -- such as electronic warfare and high-tech, precision bombing--and some psychological warfare?

Will the U.S. and its coalition train and arm Libyan rebels if pro-Qaddafi forces are able to hold key ground in the west?

Qaddafi is a bad guy, but there are many other bad guys, with or without oil, who are committing crimes against humanity.

What is the U.S and Obama policy on what constitutes crimes against humanity worthy of intervention?

And, just how tolerant should America be of allies, such as Bahrain and Yemen, who aren't the best practitioners of the "universal values" Mr. Obama cited in supporting the Egyptian protest movement?

Or do U.S. national interests trump universal values until it's no longer tenable or practical to support a morally corrupt regime?

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Mr. Obama has a significant challenge in his speech Monday evening. The future of the entire region is unpredictable and complex. There is no universal doctrine -- beyond saying that the U.S. supports universal values common to democracies -- that can make sense of the U.S. role in the ongoing unrest across the Mideast and North Africa.

As Gates said on NBC Sunday regarding the intervention in Libya, "I don't think it's a vital interest for the United States, but we clearly have interests there and it's a part of the region, which is a vital interest for the United States."

Stability and democratic reforms in the entire Mideast region is the endgame and best outcome for U.S. interests in those countries facing upheaval, mostly from the young and disenfranchised who are taking to the streets. Mr. Obama's Libyan defense will be one of trying to hold an elusive center, keeping pressure on opponents but without appearing to apply a heavy hand in directing an outcome purely advantageous to U.S. interests. 

Below, CBS News senior political producer discusses President Obama's audience tonight with CBS News congressional correspondent Nancy Cordes and CBS News chief White House correspondent Chip Reid:


Below, Reid, Cordes and Hendin discuss whether there is a political minefield for Mr. Obama over Libya:

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    Dan has more than 20 years of journalism experience. He has served as editor in chief of CBSNews.com, CNET News, ZDNet, PC Week, and MacWeek.