President Obama cast U.S. military intervention in Libya in stark strategic and humanitarian terms Monday, saying he would not stand by while the democratic aspirations spreading across the Middle East were “eclipsed by the darkest form of dictatorship” at the hands of a murderous Moammar Gadhafi.

In his first address to the nation since he authorized a military air cover and bombing campaign to shield the Libyan people and rebel forces from Gadahfi’s troops and weapons, Obama told a nation that the U.S. will relinquish its role as leader of the effort when NATO takes over on Wednesday.

He pushed back against critics on the political left and right who question his March 19 decision to commit the nation’s already taxed military to a third Muslim country.

“To brush aside America’s responsibility as a leader and, more profoundly, our responsibilities to our fellow human beings under such circumstances would have been a betrayal of who we are,” Obama said in a speech before officers at the National Defense University, a military think tank. “Some nations may be able to turn a blind eye to atrocities in other countries. The United States of America is different. And as president, I refused to wait for the images of slaughter and mass graves before taking action.”

Obama also pushed back against those who say he should broaden the mission, which was narrowly defined by a United Nations Security Council resolution to protect the Libyan people. It is his administration’s stated position that Gadhafi must go — but getting rid of him is up to the Libyan people, Obama said.

“To be blunt, we went down that road in Iraq,” Obama said. “Regime change there took eight years, thousands of American and Iraqi lives and nearly a trillion dollars. That is not something we can afford to repeat in Libya.”

Some Republicans dismissed Obama’s speech as too vague; others said the president had no right to send forces to intervene.

“Nine days into this military intervention, Americans still have no answer to the fundamental question: what does success in Libya look like?” said Brendan Buck, spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio.

“What imminent threat do Gadhafi or Libya pose to the United States?” asked Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky.

Rep. Lynn Woolsey, D-Calif., called the mission “a dangerous path toward perpetual U.S. military engagement around the world.”

Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, who complained Monday that Obama failed to adequately consult Congress before intervening in Libya, called the president’s speech “overdue.”

The No. 2 Democrat in the House, Rep. Steny Hoyer of Maryland, said he supports the “lifesaving effort” in Libya but is pleased that NATO is poised to take the lead.

The public appears conflicted. A new USA TODAY/Gallup poll finds the public evenly split — 44% each approve and disapprove and 12% have no opinion — over how Obama is handling the situation in Libya. The poll of 1,027 adults was taken March 25-27, before Obama’s speech, and has a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points.

Obama did not say how — or when — he expects the military operation in Libya to end. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton will join foreign leaders at a conference today in London today to discuss the endgame.

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