US 'Tightening Noose' on Libyan Leader, Obama Says
Washington (AP) - President Barack Obama declared Friday that a no-fly zone over Libya to keep Col. Moammar Gadhafi from attacking rebels in his country remains a possibility as "we are slowly tightening the noose" around the Libyan leader. But Obama stopped short of moving toward military action.
"The bottom line is that I have not taken any options off the table at this point," Obama told a White House news conference. "I think it is important to understand that we have moved about as swiftly as an international coalition has ever moved to impose sanctions on Gadhafi."
He cited actions already taken, including getting American citizens and embassy workers out of the country, slapping tough United Nations sanctions on Libya and seizing $30 billion in Gadhafi's assets.
"I am absolutely clear that it is in the interests of the United States, and more importantly in the interests of the Libyan people, for Mr. Gadhafi to leave," Obama said. "And we're going to take a wide range of actions to try to bring about that outcome."
Obama said he wanted to make it clear to the longtime Libyan leader "that the world is watching" his brutal response to the rebellions in his country.
The president brushed off a comment on Thursday in congressional testimony by U.S. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper that Gadhafi's military was stronger than has been described and that "in the longer term ... the regime will prevail."
"He was making a hard-headed assessment about military capability," Obama said. "I don't think anybody disputes that Gadhafi has more firepower than the opposition. He wasn't making a statement of policy."
Obama added: "I believe Gadhafi is on the wrong side of history. I believe the Libyan people are anxious for freedom. We are going to be in contact with the opposition as well as in consultation with the international community" in an effort to pressure Gadhafi to leave.
The president also said the United States and other nations have an obligation to prevent any repetition of the type of massacres that occurred in the Balkans or in Rwanda.
Obama opened his news conference with comments on the devastating Japanese earthquake and on recent rises in the price of gasoline, driven by instability in the Middle East and growing demand for fuel as the world emerges from a deep, long recession.
He said he had talked to Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan to extend U.S. condolences and offer help. He said the quake and tsunami were "potentially catastrophic" for Japan and "a reminder of just how fragile life can be."
As for possible danger to the U.S. from the tsunami that swept across the Pacific, past Hawaii and to the West Coast, Obama said the government was taking the situation "very seriously and monitoring it closely."
He said that, even though there had been reports of damage at several Japanese nuclear plants, the Japanese prime minister told him that no radiation leaks had been detected. Obama said he had asked Energy Secretary Steven Chu to "provide any assistance that's necessary." If breaches in the safety system of the plants are found, they'll be "dealt with right away," Obama said.
As for gasoline prices and oil supplies, Obama said, "Here at home, everybody should know, if the situation demands it, we are prepared to tap" into the nation's petroleum reserves, located in salt caverns in Texas and Louisiana on the Gulf Coast. Some members of Congress from both parties have called for the president to take some of the oil to help hold down prices.
The Strategic Petroleum Reserve was established in response to the Arab oil embargo of 1973-1974. It was most recently tapped in September 2008 in response to Hurricanes Gustav and Ike. Obama said the reserve is generally intended for severe supply disruption emergencies and one doesn't exist now.
"Right now, what we're seeing is not a shortage of supply. Refineries are actually operating at full capacity at the moment," he said.
He said he knows that rising gas prices are making many families "feel the pinch every time they fill up the tank."
"Look, the American people feel this pretty acutely. Right? I mean, you know, we can talk all we want in the abstract about world oil markets. What they're concerned about is, `This is money out of my pocket,'" Obama said.
Still, he said the country was in a better shape to handle a disruption in oil supplies now than in the past and that "our economy as a whole is more efficient. We're producing more oil and we're importing less."
Gasoline prices generally rise as the weather turns warmer and people drive more. With prices now averaging above $3.50 a gallon, some experts have predicted $4 a gallon gas this summer.
Obama said he believed the U.S. economy was on a "positive track" and "we're moving slowly but surely" into a period of sustained job growth. Unemployment was 8.9 percent in February, its lowest level in months.
Obama said the latest unemployment report had shown strong growth for private business. "Where you lost jobs was in state and local government," he said, adding that the federal government had been able to cushion some of those losses over the past two years.
"But now states are continuing to cut, local governments are beginning to cut," he said. "Our long term debt and deficits are not caused by us having Head Start teachers in the classroom," he said, a slap at the spending cut bill that Republicans pushed through the House.
Obama said Democrats and Republicans will have to compromise on "prudent" spending cuts as they attempt to resolve differences in legislation intended to keep the government running. But he said he would oppose cuts to education programs that were included in a House Republican measure that the Senate rejected this week.
The president was also asked about the military's treatment of Bradley Manning, the Army Pfc. suspected of giving classified U.S. documents to the anti-secrecy group WikiLeaks. Manning, 23, is in pretrial confinement at the Marine Corps base in Quantico,Va. He is charged with 22 counts, including aiding the enemy, accused of stealing classified documents and causing them to be published on the Internet while working as an intelligence analyst in Iraq.
"I have actually asked the Pentagon whether or not the procedures that have been taken in terms of his confinement are appropriate and are meeting our basic standards. They assured me that they are," Obama said. He declined to discuss further details.
Manning's civilian lawyer has said his client's clothing is being taken each night because of sarcastic comments he had made about using underwear to commit suicide. The lawyer has called the treatment degrading. Amnesty International also says the treatment may violate Manning's human rights.