Deputy National Security Adviser Denis McDonough last night went on the PBS Newshour. He was asked questions. He answered them. And at the end,you had no idea what he said, and more important, what our plan and goals are in the war in Libya. A sample of his interview with Gwen Ifill:
GWEN IFILL: Both House Speaker John Boehner just this afternoon and even Democrats like Sen. Jim Webb have said that the U.S. has lacked a clear policy and certainly hasn’t consulted widely enough with Congress.
What do you say to them?
DENIS MCDONOUGH: Well, we got a letter from the speaker today. We look forward to continuing the conversation with him.
The president had a very good meeting with him on Friday. I happened to have a good discussion with him on Saturday. We have been talking with Congress about this now for a couple weeks. But the bottom line is we had an opportunity to move after we had brought the international community along with us last Thursday night in that U.N. Security Council resolution.
We had an opportunity to move with alacrity and speed and agility, as our armed forces always do, and protected Benghazi. And we have turned the Gadhafi forces around. We feel pretty good about that. But now it’s up to working with our international colleagues to establish the kind of command-and-control that Jim referred to a minute ago, work with Prime Minister Cameron and his conference next week in London, where the international community, Europeans, Arabs, international organizations, put a political plan together to make sure that we have the future that the Libyans want.
So this is going to be a comprehensive effort. But, importantly, Gwen, it’s not resting solely on our shoulders. It’s something that we’re going to share with the international community.
But she asked whether we have a clear policy. In about 200 words McDonough couldn’t explain what it was, or if we have one.
Ifill was dogged in her search for coherence. Alas, no luck here:
GWEN IFILL: Secretary Clinton said that it would be easiest if Col. Gadhafi left. And we heard Adm. Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, say earlier in this week that he didn’t know if that’s going to happen, that they had to envision a possibility that he would still be in office even after this is over.
How do you determine success, and how do you know if he is still there that the entire cycle doesn’t begin again?
DENIS MCDONOUGH: Well, you know, we didn’t set out to do regime change here. We set out, as I said, to do a very targeted mission, which is to enable — to shape the environment using our unique assets to enable our international partners to take over the no-fly zone.
We’re on the verge of doing that. We also said, as the president outlined to the country on Friday afternoon, that we were going to make sure that we turned back Gadhafi’s forces from Benghazi. We have done that. I’m very proud of the work of our forces, Marines, sailors, airmen, soldiers. They have done that, at great, great sacrifice, but with great agility and great alacrity.
And we have turned back what everybody assumed was going to be a siege of Benghazi. So we’re going to — we set out these very concrete efforts. We’re going to fulfill those. Then we’re going to bring the rest of the international community along, so again we can share some of this burden, because again we’re asking our troops to do an awful lot.
And, frankly, we’re asking the American people to do an awful lot right now.
Actually, we are asking the most of men and women who are putting their lives on the line. And McDonough won’t tell them whether “success” would mean leaving Moammar Gaddafi in place.
Ifill tried again, expressing her and her audience’s confusion:
GWEN IFILL: Help me get this right. You are defining success as holding Gadhafi’s forces back from these key cities, Benghazi, Zawiyah, other cities, Misrata, and then handing this over, at least the lead position over, to international partners. The U.S. would still be involved, though?
DENIS MCDONOUGH: Oh, in fact, we ensured that the United Nations Security Council resolution that was passed last Thursday night had additional tools to allow us to be involved but not solely our military. We’re asking our military to do an awful lot right now.
So, what we have made sure is that there’s non-military tools, additional sanctions, additional limitations on arms that get to him, additional ability to freeze his assets, so we can set aside that money that’s not the money for him and his family, Gwen. That’s the Libyan people’s money. So that’s set aside for them, frozen assets, until there’s a change in Libya, so that they can have the kind of future and make the kind of investments that Libyans want...
GWEN IFILL: So...
DENIS MCDONOUGH: ... in education and opportunity.
So, we’ll be involved. Of course we will.
GWEN IFILL: The success of this mission, then, is not necessarily whether we leave or whether we stay. It’s what? I guess I’m trying to figure out, what is the exit strategy?
DENIS MCDONOUGH: Well, we’re not talking about an exit strategy. As I said, the president defined it very clearly the other night in terms of our initial efforts in this undertaking.
We carved out a space where we will be able to enable our partners to take over the no-fly zone. We have turned the troops back from Benghazi, protected those civilians. And we continue to degrade his forces, so they can’t undertake the kind of mass atrocity that we all feared just a week ago, and as you reported on your show.
So, that’s an initial success. But the longer-term success is going to take additional efforts. And it’s not going to be a solely military effort, by any means.
Got all that? Listen, if the administration wants to disabuse the public and Congress of their conviction that Obama lacks the strategy, the mission and the serious commitment (including rhetorical clarity) to win this war, then he should stop sending advisers out to blabber on, evade questions and insult the intelligence of the American people.
Moreover, in a democracy, it’s simply unacceptable to play hide-the-ball (and the mission) from the public. And as important as it is to be candid with our citizens, it is even more important to impress upon others in the region and beyond (e.g. Afghanistan, Russia, China) that we will in fact lead the West and unashamedly defend our interests. Right now, we are doing the opposite.