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Right Turn
Posted at 10:00 AM ET, 03/28/2011

In search of clarity on Libya

On Saturday in his weekly radio address the president said this about the Libya war:

As commander in chief, I face no greater decision than sending our military men and women into harm’s way. And the United States should not — and cannot — intervene every time there’s a crisis somewhere in the world.

But I firmly believe that when innocent people are being brutalized; when someone like Gaddafi threatens a bloodbath that could destabilize an entire region; and when the international community is prepared to come together to save many thousands of lives — then it’s in our national interest to act. And it’s our responsibility. This is one of those times.

Well, is it in our national interest that Moammar Gaddafi “must go,” as he said last week? Umm, not sure:

This military effort is part of our larger strategy to support the Libyan people and hold the Gaddafi regime accountable. Together with the international community, we’re delivering urgent humanitarian assistance. We’re offering support to the Libyan opposition. We’ve frozen tens of billions of dollars of Gaddafi’s assets that can help meet the needs and aspirations of the Libyan people. And every day, the pressure on Gaddafi and his regime is increasing.

Our message is clear and unwavering. Gaddafi’s attacks against civilians must stop. His forces must pull back. Humanitarian assistance must be allowed to reach those in need. Those responsible for violence must be held accountable. Moammar Gaddafi has lost the confidence of his people and the legitimacy to rule, and the aspirations of the Libyan people must be realized.

If you are not certain, you’re not alone. The president’s top advisers weren’t exactly on the same page on the Sunday talk shows. On Meet the Press there was this exchange between Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Defense Secretary Robert Gates:

MR. GREGORY: Secretary Gates, is Libya in our vital interest as a country?

SEC’Y GATES: No. 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.

MR. GREGORY: I think a lot of people would hear that and way, well, that’s quite striking. Not in our vital interest, and yet we’re committing military resources to it.

SEC’Y CLINTON: Well, but, but, but then it wouldn’t be fair as to what Bob just said. I mean, did Libya attack us? No. They did not attack us. Do they have a very critical role in this region and do they neighbor two countries — you just mentioned one, Egypt, the other Tunisia — that are going through these extraordinary transformations and cannot afford to be destabilized by conflict on their borders? Yes. Do they have a major influence on what goes on in Europe because of everything from oil to immigration?

And, you know, David, that raises a, a very important point. Because you showed on the map just a minute ago Afghanistan. You know, we asked our allies, our NATO allies, to go into Afghanistan with us 10 years ago. They have been there, and a lot of them have been there despite the fact they were not attacked. The attack came on us as we all tragically remember. They stuck with us.

When it comes to Libya, we started hearing from the U.K., France, Italy, other of our NATO allies. This was in their vital national interest. The U.K. and France were the ones who went to the Security Council and said, “We have to act because otherwise we’re seeing a really violent upheaval with a man who has a history of unpredictable violent acts right on our doorstep.” So, you know, let, let’s be fair here. They didn’t attack us, but what they were doing and Gaddafi’s history and the potential for the disruption and instability was very much in our interests, as Bob said, and seen by our European friends and our Arab partners as very vital to their interests.

If you are keeping score at home: one vote for “not a vital interest” (Gates), one vote for a “national interest” and one vote for “See what I have to put up with?” (Clinton). Goodness knows if there is a difference among them.

Now while the president was ambiguous in our military’s role in booting Gaddafi out, Gates was not:

MR. GREGORY: Bottom line, the president wants him to go. But the president will not take him out himself.

SEC’Y GATES: Certainly not militarily.

MR. GREGORY: So it would have to be other means.

SEC’Y GATES: Yes.

What would be those other means? Clinton talked for a very long time, but it’s not clear what those are:

MR. GREGORY: That said, Secretary Gates, would the U.S. supply arms to the rebels?

SEC’Y GATES: No decision has been made about that at this point. The, the Security Council resolution would permit it, the 2nd Resolution 1973 would permit it. But no decisions have been made by our government about that.

MR. GREGORY: Why? Does this administration want to see the rebels prevail and overtake Gaddafi?

SEC’Y GATES: I think the president’s policy is that it’s time for Gaddafi to go. That’s not part of our military mission, which has been very limited and very strictly defined.

MR. GREGORY: Well, so how is that going to happen?

SEC’Y CLINTON: Well . . .

MR. GREGORY: Secretary Clinton, you said this week that you thought you were picking up signals that he wanted to get out of his own accord.

SEC’Y CLINTON: Well, David, there are many different aspects to the strategy that the international community is pursuing. As Bob has said, the military mission has gone very well. It only started, you know, just, like, eight days ago. So it has been remarkably well-coordinated and focused, and now NATO will take command and control over it. At the same time, we are pursuing really strict economic sanctions on him and people close to him. We have a political effort under way. The African Union just called for a transition to democracy. The Arab League, the others of us who are supporting this endeavor are going to be meeting in London on Tuesday to begin to focus on how we’re going to help facilitate such a transition of him leaving power.

MR. GREGORY: Right. But, but you said this week you thought there were indications he was looking to get out. Is that true?

SEC’Y CLINTON: Well, people around him — we have a lot of evidence that people around him are reaching out. Now, so far what they’ve been doing is to say, “You’re misunderstanding us. You don’t appreciate what we’re doing. Come and talk to us.” Well, the secretary general of the United Nations has appointed a former Jordanian foreign minister as a special envoy. He will be going to both Benghazi and Tripoli in, in the next few days so that we will provide a very clear message to Gaddafi. But we’re also sending a message to people around him, “Do you really want to be a pariah? Do you really want to end up in the international criminal court? Now is your time to get out of this and to help change the direction.”

That sounds like a woman who is winging it.

None of this is Gates’s fault or Clinton’s fault. When the president’s goals are not clear or he refuses to be clear with the American people about his goals, his advisers have nowhere to go. (And what is our military to do, then?) Come to think of it, why then did Gates and Clinton go on the Sunday talk shows?

Let’s hope this evening the president answers every question with the clarity we need. “Yes, it’s in our national interest and those o f Libyans, the region and all free people for Gaddafi to go. And when it comes to liberating oppressed people and removing despots, there is no finer instrument than the U.S. military.” Now how hard is THAT?

By  |  10:00 AM ET, 03/28/2011

 
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