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NBC's "Meet the Press" interview with Secretary Gates and Secretary Clinton on Libya

Presenters: NBC’s David Gregory, Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton
March 27, 2011

            MR. GREGORY: As part of the president's effort to more fully explain the U.S. mission and interests in Libya, the Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton , and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates sat down here with me yesterday.

            Secretary Clinton, Secretary Gates, welcome back to MEET THE PRESS.  The president said this is an operation that would take days, not weeks.  We are now into the second week.  Has the mission been accomplished?

            SEC. GATES:  I think that the no-fly zone aspect of the mission has been accomplished.  We have not seen any of his planes fly since the mission started.  We have suppressed his air defenses.  I think we've also been successful on the humanitarian side.  We have prevented his forces from going to Benghazi, and we have taken out a good bit of his armor.  So I think we have, to a very large extent, completed the military mission in terms of getting it set up.  Now, the no-fly zone and even the humanitarian side will have to be sustained for some period of time.

            MR. GREGORY:  Is Gadhafi capable of routing the rebels?

            SEC. CLINTON:  At this point it appears that his efforts have been stopped.  I think if you were to look at where we were just a couple of weeks ago, he was clearly on his way to Benghazi.  He was intending, by his own words, to show no mercy, to go house to house.  I think we've prevented a great humanitarian disaster, which is always hard to point to something that didn't happen, but I, I believe we did.  And now we're beginning to see, because of the good work of the, the coalition , to see his, his troops begin to turn back towards the west and to see the opposition begin to reclaim ground they had lost.

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

            SEC. 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 Gadhafi?

            SEC. GATES:  I think the president's policy is that it's time for Gadhafi 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. 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. 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. 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 Gadhafi. 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."

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

            SEC. GATES:  Certainly not militarily.

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

            SEC. GATES:  Yes.

            MR. GREGORY:  And...

            SEC. GATES:  But -- and as I, as I've said, you know, we have, we have things in our tool box in addition to hammers.  Secretary Clinton 's just talked about a number of them.  And don't underestimate what Hillary just said, of the people around him looking at what's happening and the international view of this place, and when's the time to turn and go to the other side? And so the...

            MR. GREGORY:  Let me...

            SEC. GATES:  I think we -- one should not underestimate the possibility of the regime itself cracking.

            MR. GREGORY:  I want to talk about some of the congressional criticism.  Speaker of the House Boehner issued a letter with questions, some of which were deemed legitimate questions by the White House.  Here's a portion of it, I'll put it up on the screen:  "Because of the conflicting messages from the administration and our coalition partners," he wrote, "there is a lack of clarity over the objectives of this mission , what our national security interests are, how it fits into our overarching policy for the Middle East .  The American people deserve answers to these questions.  And all of these concerns point to a fundamental question: What is your benchmark for success in Libya?"
           
            SEC. CLINTON:  Well, I think it's perfectly legitimate for members of Congress and the public to ask questions.  The president's going to address the nation Monday night.  A lot of these questions will be answered.  But, but I would just make a couple of points.  First, on March 1 the United States Senate passed a resolution calling for a no-fly zone. That was a bipartisan resolution.  There were a number of people in the House, including leadership in both the Republican and Democratic Parties, who were demanding that action be taken.  The international community came together; and, in an unprecedented action, the Arab League called on the Security Council to do exactly what the Security Council ended up doing.  Now, the United States and other countries were in a position to be able to act to enforce it.  If you look at the coverage on Al Jazeera, if you listen to the statements that are being put out by the opposition in Libya , there is a great deal of appreciation for what we and others have done in order to stop Gadhafi on his mission of merciless oppression.  So this was an international effort that the United States was a part of.  I certainly believe it was within the president's constitutional authority to do so.  It is going according to the plan that the president laid out.  The United States will be transitioning to a NATO command and control.  And then we will be joining with the rest of the international community.  And if you look at the region, can you imagine, David, if we were sitting here and Gadhafi had gotten to Benghazi and, in a city of 700,000 people, had massacred tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands had fled over the border, destabilizing Egypt?  Everybody would be saying why didn't the president do something?

            MR. GREGORY:  Can I ask you about Boehner himself?

            SEC. CLINTON:  These are, these are difficult choices.

            MR. GREGORY: Did Speaker Boehner raise any objections when he was briefed prior to the mission?

            SEC. CLINTON:  Well, I know that there was a constant flow of information, both to members and staff. And, of course, the president had a, a conference with some members in person, others, many others, including the speaker on the phone. But we have no objection to anybody asking questions. But I think it's important to look at the context in which this is occurring. And the fact that we have moved so rapidly to have this kind of international action taken answers in great measure the legitimate concerns of the people of Libya.  And now, of course, we're going to take it day by day.  That's what you do in a situation like this.

            MR. GREGORY:  The military’s stretched pretty thin. Look at this map to show what our commitments are around the globe. In Iraq, of course, we have 47,000 troops. In Afghanistan, 100,000 strong, and now this additional commitment of U.S. troops, I mean, not troops, but U.S. assets in Libya. How does the president, speaking to the nation Monday night, maintain a sense of national purpose here at a time when we're so stretched?

            SEC. GATES:  Actually, your list was incomplete. We have a substantial military commitment in a humanitarian assistance disaster relief in Japan, as well, largely using naval forces. The air forces that we are using for the most part and the air forces in particular that we are using Libya are forces normally stationed in Europe in any event. The reality is, though, beginning this week or within the next week or so, we will begin to diminish the commitment of resources that we have committed to this. We knew the president's plan at the beginning was we would go in heavy at first because we had the capacity to do it, in terms of suppressing air defenses and so on. But then the idea was that, over time, the coalition would assume a larger and larger proportion of the burden.  This was the conversation he had with foreign leaders when this whole thing was coming together.  And so we see our commitment of resources actually beginning to decline.

            MR. GREGORY: How long does the no-fly zone last?

            SEC. GATES: Well, the...

            MR. GREGORY: Weeks or longer?

            SEC. GATES:  Once the, once the Arab -- first of all, nobody knows the answer to that question.

            SEC. CLINTON:  Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.

            SEC. GATES: But once the air defenses have been suppressed, what it takes to sustain the no- fly zone is substantially less than what it takes to establish it.

            MR. GREGORY: Let me ask this question, though, still on the military, and then I want your comment as well. What if things don't go as planned? What is our contingency planning? What is the U.S. commitment if things get worse in Libya?  If Gadhafi stays?  If there's an entrenched civil war?  If it devolves into Somalia -like chaos?  What then?  What's our commitment?

            SEC. GATES:  Well, the president has made very clear there will be no American troops on the ground in Libya.  He's, he's made that quite definite. Our air power has significantly degraded his armor capabilities, his ability to use his armor against cities like Benghazi.  We see them beginning to move back to the west, retreating. So, you know, this eventually is going to have to be settled by the Libyans themselves, perhaps the U.N. can mediate or whatever. But in terms of the military commitment, the president has put some very strict limitations in terms of what we are prepared to do.

            MR. GREGORY: I want to ask you, Secretary Clinton, if I can, about the rest of the region because there is so much else that's happening. And I want to go to the map and, and go through these in turn. First, as we look at the broader Middle East, we look at Syria.  Deadly protests, because of a government crackdown, that have been occurring over the past few days.  Is it the position of the government that we would like to see the Assad regime fall?

            SEC. CLINTON:  What we have said is what we've said throughout this extraordinary period of transformation in North Africa and the Middle East. We want to see no violence. We want to see peaceful protests that enables people to express their universal human rights. And we want to see economic and political reform. That's what we've called on in Syria, that's what we've called on other governments across the region to do.

            MR. GREGORY: What about Saudi Arabia?  We go back to the map, Secretary Gates.  The king is quite upset with the president.  The relationship has ruptured to the point that he has sent troops into Bahrain.  He would not see both of you when you were in the region.  What are we doing to fix a ruptured relationship with perhaps our most important partner in the region when it comes to oil as well as other matters?

            SEC. GATES:  Well, first of all, I don't believe the relationship is ruptured.  We have a very strong relationship with Saudi Arabia.  I think that the Saudis see all of this turbulence in the region with some disquiet.  They're very concerned about Iran. They believe that Iran will be able to take advantage of the situation in various of these countries.  And those are their concerns, and we share some of those concerns.  But I think, I think it's a great exaggeration to say this relationship’s ruptured.  I, I intend to visit the region in the near term and, and hope and intend to see the king.  So I think we have a very strong relationship.  We have a very strong military to military relationship.  As you know, the Saudis just made one of the largest purchases of American weapons in, in their history.  So I think it's overdrawn.  Do we have some differences of view?  Absolutely.  But that's -- friends happen -- that happens between friends all the time.

            MR. GREGORY: Back to the map. In addition to Yemen, I want to actually focus on Egypt, still the strategic cornerstone.  Yemen, of course, important, but it is in Egypt that is a strategic cornerstone of this region.  What are we doing, Secretary Clinton, at this point to try to assist the young, secular movement that wants to find a way toward leadership that may be outmanned now by the Muslim Brotherhood and Mubarak 's own party?

            SEC. CLINTON:  Well, David, first, we have historically done quite a bit in reaching out to the very young people you're referring to.  When I was just in Egypt, I met with a number of those who had been leaders of the activities in Tahrir Square and that were hoping to translate that protest into political action.  A lot of them had been in American government -sponsored programs, they'd been on visitation programs to the United States.  And we are continuing to reach out and work with them and to try to provide support to them.  It is hard moving from being in the forefront of a movement to being part of a political process.  It's hard in any country, but we're going to stand with them and make sure that, at least in so far as we're able to, they get the support they need.  At the same time, though, we are also working with the interim government in Egypt.  Both Bob and I, when we were recently in Egypt , met with government officials and met with the military officials who are, for the time being, running the government.  We want to assist them on the economic reform efforts that they're undertaking.  Now, ultimately, this is up to the Egyptians.  They're going to have to make these decisions.  But we've offered our advice, and we're offering aid where appropriate.

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

            SEC. 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. 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 UK, France, Italy, other of our NATO allies. This was in their vital national interest.  The UK 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 Gadhafi '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.

            (Section on another topic omitted.)

            MR. GREGORY:  Thank you both very much.

            SEC. CLINTON:  Thank you.

            SEC. GATES:  Thank you.

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