White House aide Samantha Power, a former news reporter turned anti-genocide advocate, said President Obama's two-year campaign to promote human rights helped trigger the uprising in Libya against Col. Moammar Gadhafi's rule.
In a speech Monday at Columbia University, Ms. Power, director of multilateral affairs at the National Security Council, defended her support for the military operation against Libyan government forces and said the president's efforts, through speeches in various foreign capitals, made it easier for other nations to stand with the United States against tyrants.
"The president has argued our interests and our values cannot be separated," Ms. Power said, speaking to a friendly crowd of about 130 people. "These values have caused the people of Libya to risk their lives on the street."
Ms. Power sidestepped questions about reports she was among three female Obama administration aides who pressed the president to go to war in Libya.
On the military operation to impose a no-fly zone, however, Ms. Power, said that "force can be justified on humanitarian grounds."
Ms. Power said the international coalition acted to save the rebel-stronghold city of Benghazi because of Col. Gadhafi's attacks. "On a single day, he killed 1,200 people on suspicion" of being anti-government rebels, she said.
"To put Libyan events in historical perspective," she said, "in Libya, it took us nine days impose asset freezes and travel bans," while pressuring regimes in the Balkans and other places took years.
News reports first disclosed in the New York Times said that Ms. Power, U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton helped overrule reluctant defense and military leaders in persuading Mr. Obama to launch military operations against Col. Gadhafi's forces under the guise of protecting civilians from those forces.
Mrs. Clinton on Sunday defended the Libyan intervention on ABC, stating that "we learned a lot" from not doing enough to stop genocide in Rwanda and ethnic killings in the Balkans in the 1990s.
The Ireland-born Ms. Power is the author of the 2002 book "A Problem From Hell: America and the Age of Genocide," which won a Pulitzer Prize.
Ms. Power is an advocate of the United Nations resolution called "Responsibility to Protect," or "RtoP," which focuses on efforts to prevent genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing.
Ms. Rice, who served as assistant secretary of state in the Clinton administration, has said her greatest regret was not pushing hard enough for international intervention in the Rwandan genocide in 1994, when hundreds of thousands were killed in a civil war.
Ms. Rice was instrumental in organizing the successful U.N. vote that included the backing of the Arab League to establish the Libya no-fly zone.
Johanna Mendelson Forman, a humanitarian-affairs specialist with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said she understood the reluctance of Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and other military leaders, including National Security Adviser Thomas Donilon to launch military action in Libya.
"It's very hard to figure out where this takes you," Ms. Mendelson Forman said. "No one has the stomach for a continued ground presence in Libya."
Ms. Mendelson Forman, who served as an adviser to the U.N. Mission in Haiti, also played down the notion of fierce women pressuring reluctant men in the Obama administration. "Hillary Clinton would dismiss it as ridiculous," she said.
The intervention in Libya has spawned numerous questions, including the limits of presidential power, the decision-making process on where to engage in military action, mission creep and the role of advocates for implementing "RtoP."
"I thought we were past 'If women ruled the world, there'd be peace,' " said Mai-Linh K. Hong, a Virginia lawyer who has written extensively on the genocide in Rwanda. "Media reminds us we aren't."
Ms. Mendelson Forman acknowledged there is no clear end in sight for the Libya action. "Once you've gone in," she asked, "what is the commitment to stay?"
Ms. Power started her government career as a Senate aide to Mr. Obama. In March 2008, she resigned from the Obama presidential campaign after she was quoted in the Scotsman newspaper as referring to Mrs. Clinton, then a presidential rival, as a "monster."