Media Availability with Secretary Gates enroute to Russia, from Andrews Air Force Base
SECRETARY OF DEFENSE ROBERT GATES: Well, first let me apologize for creating a challenge for your travel plans, but I felt it was important to be in Washington for the launch of the operations against Libya. I think that the visits that we’re going to make on this trip are worth doing and now that I think the operation is off to a strong and successful start that we can go ahead and make this trip. Obviously, one of the reasons we’re on this plane is because of the communications, so I’ll be staying in very close communication with what’s going on.
With that –
Q: Mr. Secretary, you had expressed at least some initial cautions about going to war and the likely ramifications. Can you talk a little bit about what happened over the intervening days that, I guess, calmed any sense of caution that you might have had, and what you see as the end-game here? What’s the impact on the military?
SEC. GATES: Well, first of all, I think if you go back and look at what I’ve said, it basically has been to try and provide a realistic appreciation of what’s required – what would be required to impose a no-fly zone. And as I recall, what I said before the House Appropriations Defense Subcommittee a week or so ago when I said let’s call a spade a spade, it was that a no-fly zone begins with an attack on Libya. I think that was a pretty accurate statement.
So I think what I’ve tried to do is really just make clear what is involved in this and that it is a complex undertaking. I would just say this: I think that any president who is contemplating the use of military force should demand a spirited debate, an intense debate among his advisers upon all of the ramifications. And I would tell you that in terms of questions and uncertainties and outcomes there hasn’t been a question asked publicly in the last 24 hours or so that wasn’t discussed in-depth in the lead-up to the launching of this operation.
And I would just finally say that whatever positions people took in that debate and in that discussion, there was unanimous support for the approach the president decided on.
SEC. GATES: Support for the approach the president decided on.
Q: Mr. Secretary, can I ask – your British counterparts in London today has said that he thinks the operation should include the possibility the dropping of a bomb on Mr. Gadhafi himself in order to make sure that the regime is overturned. Would you support that?
SEC. GATES: Well, I think that it’s important that we operate within the mandate of the U.N. Security Council resolution. This is a very diverse coalition and the one thing that there is common agreement on are the terms set forth in the Security Council resolution. If we start adding additional objectives, then I think we create a problem in that respect. I also think that it is unwise to set as specific goals, things that you may or may not be able to achieve.
Q: Building on that, what is the – how do you see this evolving, and how do we know when we’ve won, if we can put it that crudely?
SEC. GATES: Well, I think that – well, the key is, first of all, to establish the no-fly zone, to do what we can to prevent him from using his military forces to slaughter his own people. And if we’re able to achieve those objectives, then it seems to me it’s a longer term process, and I would just say that out of the – that the toolbox we bring with us to this has things in it other than hammers, or in addition to hammers. There’s a whole range of political and economic sanctions, a variety of other actions that have been taken – the international criminal court and so on and so forth.
So there’re a lot of players in this, and I think our first objective is to accomplish the mandate set forth in the Security Council resolution and I think we’ve made good progress in doing that.
Q: Secretary, on the command and control, it’s been made clear to us that right now Gen. Ham, the admiral in charge of the JTF are in control, and then there is the desire to transition to a coalition. Is that NATO? What would be the shape of the coalition you expect to take over?
SEC. GATES: Well, I think that there are a couple of possibilities – one is British and French leadership, another is the use of the NATO machinery and I think we just have to work out the command and control that is most accommodating to all of the members of the coalition.
Q: There’ve been concerns raised by the head of the Arab League about the use of bombs in the run-up to the no-fly zone. What’s your reaction to that?
SEC. GATES: Well, my – I saw in the news just before I got on the plane that, in fact, the Arab League had voted again to reaffirm its support. So I think we’re okay.
Q: Did it make a difference to you, the first Arab League vote last Saturday to support a no-fly zone? One of the concerns you had had previously was how the region would view such U.S. military intervention in Libya. What do you think about the Arab League decision, did that help? And what about NATO support, because it seems like – I mean, obviously this is not a NATO mission right now, do you think it will become one and what does that say about NATO’s relevance?
SEC. GATES: Well, first of all, I think that the action by the Arab League was very important and because the initiative really first came from those in the region, and I think that in terms of thinking both in Europe and in the United States governments that that was a very important first step. And having them on as a part of this coalition also is important.
What was your second question?
Q: What about the relevance of NATO in this –
SEC. GATES: Well, I think – I think that there is a – I think there is a sensitivity on the part of the Arab League to being seen to be operating under a NATO umbrella, and so the question is if there is a way we can work out NATO’s command and control machinery without it being a NATO mission and without a NATO flag and so on.
Q: Under the U.N. mandate for this mission, would you see it as appropriate to work militarily with the rebels, not in the standoff way we’ve done in imposing the no-fly zone, but more directly. Under what circumstances would that be appropriate?
SEC. GATES: Well, I think – I think this is basically going to have to be resolved by the Libyans themselves. I mean, this is – this is something that we’ve talked about with respect to other countries in the region – Tunisia, Egypt and so on, and for that matter, the political process in other countries. Whether or not there is additional outside help for the rebels I think remains to be seen.
Q: Just to build on David’s question, do you feel right now as if we know enough about the rebels to make that decision? And can you envision a scenario in which operations end with Col. Gadhafi still in power at least over part of Libya?
SEC. GATES: Well, you’re asking me to speculate on what the future looks like. I stopped doing that when I left CIA.
Q: Do you feel like when it comes to the rebels themselves, do you feel right now that we know enough about who they are, what their leadership is?
SEC. GATES: Let me put it this way. We certainly know a lot about Gadhafi, and that’s good enough for now.
Q: Were there any limitations put on the U.S. participation in this campaign or from your vantage point did you just say, we’re going to assess this on a day-to-day basis, or at the outset when the United Nations agreed were there any limitations?
SEC. GATES: How do you mean?
Q: Did you suggest or did anyone suggest that the U.S. would only participate to a certain degree as far as assets deployed?
SEC. GATES: I think one of the things that was very much on the president’s mind is importance of a meaningful coalition, meaning other countries making serious military contributions so the United States isn’t carrying the preeminent responsibility for an indefinite period of time.
One limitation, obviously, on the part of the president was no boots on the ground. But it is pretty clear that we agreed to use our unique capabilities and the breadth of those capabilities at the frontend of this process, and then we expected in a matter of days to be able to turn over the primary responsibility to others. We will continue to support the coalition. We’ll be a member of the coalition. We will have a military role in the coalition, but we will not have the preeminent role. And the president was very -- felt strongly, I would say, about limiting the scale of U.S. military involvement in this. He’s more aware than almost anybody of the stress on our military. But these naval and air assets that we can bring to bear have clearly played an important role here at the frontend and we will continue to play a role, but we will be one of a number of partners beginning, I hope, in a few days.
Q: Secretary Gates --
MR. MORRELL: Well, let’s take one or two more on Libya and then one or two Russia, and then we’ve got to call it quits. He’s got work to do. So let’s go -- hold on, hold on. Let’s go here to Phil and let’s go to -- or Adam and then Craig.
Q: Secretary, at this point only Qatar has committed forces, planes to go in. Given the Arab League vote, are you disappointed? Were you expecting more? Are you still expecting more from the Arabs? And do you think their reluctance to do it has anything to do with disappointment of how the U.S. handled Mubarak and handled the situation in Bahrain?
SEC. GATES: No. I would say we received strong indications from several Arab states that they would participate. This is a new endeavor for them, and the notion that it takes a while to get it organized and get there I think shouldn’t be a surprise.
MR. MORRELL: Craig.
Q: Sir, you said this is basically so the Libyans are going to have to resolve for themselves. Several days ago you did raise a possibility that Libya could break up? Do you think that’s still --
SEC. GATES: Did I say that?
Q: Well, you did speculate something to that effect about whether the country’s political future -- do you think it will remain intact or is that still a concern at this point?
SEC. GATES: Well, again, I think we don’t know what the future holds. I think all countries probably would like to see Libya remain a unified state. Having states in the region begin to break up because of internal differences I think is a formula for real instability in the future. So I think trying to keep these states as unified states and -- as they have been for some period of time is important. I don’t think we ought to do anything to encourage partition or division of these countries. I think -- as I say, I think that would be a real formula for enduring instability.
MR. MORRELL: Anything on Russia? Okay.
SEC. GATES: Don’t everybody jump up at once.
Q: I have a question about Russia. Can I just ask you, how successful do you think overall the Obama effort to reset relations with Russia has been? And given how many trips you’ve made here, how long you’ve studied Russia, can you talk about sort of how you see Russia today relative let’s say to when you first took over as SecDef or when you first joined the CIA some decades back and looked at it.
SEC. GATES: Well, it’s a lot different than it was in 1966, let me tell you. No, I think if you look at the areas where we are cooperating and the kind of dialogue that we’re having with the Russians, we have come quite a distance. I mean, the Russians -- here is a single fact that continues to amaze me. Russia is an integral part of the northern distribution network for supporting our operations in Afghanistan. At this point we have probably sent more than 30,000 containers across Russia. Russia’s willingness to work with us in this I think is really extraordinary. And then you add it to the things we’re doing together on counterterrorism, counter-narcotics – the fact that they have cooperated and supported the efforts on the Security Council resolutions with respect to both North Korea and Iran I think are very important. The fact that despite their reservations they didn’t veto resolution 1973.
So I think there’s a broad area of cooperation here that is really important. And we obviously have our differences. We have our concerns with some of the human rights issues in Russia, questions of law. The vice president spoke to those when he was in Moscow a couple of weeks ago. But overall, I would say there has been really extraordinary progress, and I’m looking forward to the visit.
MR. MORRELL: Tom.
Q: This follows quite naturally from that. In your memoir "From the Shadows," you talk about a 1983 assessment you wrote that said no matter how things -- how solid the relationship was with Moscow, individual events could completely derail the relationship. That’s certainly not true with a close ally like Britain or France or Canada. Do you ever see Russia becoming the sort of partner that individual incidents would no longer be able to throw the relationship off the rails?
SEC. GATES: Well, I think that -- I think we’re on the way to that kind of a relationship. I would say we’re probably not there yet, but it’s not nearly as fragile as it was 30 years ago in terms of a single event. And partly I think it’s because particularly over the last couple, three years, both sides have been sensitive to the value of the relationship and there’s been good communication.
The invasion of Georgia clearly was an issue in the bilateral relationship in the Bush administration and for the first part of the Obama administration, but it didn’t derail a number of other things that were going on in the bilateral relationship. So I think we’re on the way there.
And I would just make the observation, going back to your question, Yochi, on strategic dialogue we have now had underway for more than 40 years the kind of dialogue with Russia that I’m just trying to get started with China.
MR. MORRELL: Okay.