Gates: Libya was not 'a vital interest'; Clinton: President took the 'best available option'

Defense Secretary Robert Gates on Sunday defended the U.S. military’s role in airstrikes against Col. Moammar Gadhafi's forces but said that Libya was not an imminent threat to the United States when the president ordered them.

In two separate interviews Gates acknowledged that Libya did not hold “a vital interest” for the U.S., although he emphasized the geopolitical importance of Libya in a region fraught with recent instability.

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“No I don’t think it’s a vital interest for the United States,” said Gates in a pre-taped interview with NBC’s “Meet the Press” that aired on Sunday. “But we clearly have interests there and it’s a part of the region which is a vital interest for the United States.”

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stressed that the airstrikes and the no-fly zone established by U.S.-led forces had “prevented a great humanitarian disaster” and that the consequences could have been catastrophic if President Obama had not engaged the U.S. military.

“The cries would be, ‘Why did the United States not do anything?’” said Clinton on ABC’s “This Week.” “How could you stand by when, you know, France and the United Kingdom and other Europeans and the Arab League and your Arab partners were saying, ‘you've got to do something?’”

Clinton elaborated in her interview with NBC, saying that it was critical to take action in Libya because of the potentially negative effect Gadhafi’s repression of the popular uprising could have had on its neighboring countries, Egypt and Tunisia, which both recently ousted their presidents and are in the midst of a politically uncertain period. 

“There is no perfect option when one is looking at a situation like this,” she said. “I think that the president ordered the best available option.”

The ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee said he was “startled” by Gates’ comments and that Obama needs to fully communicate the U.S.’s “endgame,” or what it hopes to ultimately accomplish.

“I was startled to hear Secretary Gates say that Libya was not a vital interest [and] Secretary Clinton then came in with the fact that our European allies are very disturbed about the situation,” said Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.). “And of course, we have justified military action as a humanitarian action to stop the shooting of civilians.”

After more than a week of airstrikes by U.S., British, and French forces, Gates said, “I think that we are at a point where a – where the establishment of the no-fly zone and the protection of cities from the kind of wholesale military assault that we have seen certainly in the East has been accomplished and now we can move to sustainment.”

Libyan rebels, who are fighting to remove Gadhafi after 42 years in power, pushed the pro-Gadhafi forces out of a key city in the eastern part of the country, according to news reports.

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) on CNN’s “State of the Union” heralded the recent developments on Sunday as a sign of success that Gadhafi was “on his heels.” 

Many Republicans and Democrats have expressed their fear of an open-ended U.S.-led military campaign and have criticized Obama for not communicating to them the U.S.’s overall objectives in Libya.

House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) wrote to Obama earlier this week asking him, “If the strife in Libya becomes a protracted conflict, what are your Administration’s objectives for engaging with opposition forces, and what standards must a new regime meet to be recognized by our government?” 

Obama has been rapidly trying to defuse congressional criticism, saying in his radio address on Saturday that the U.S. would have a limited military involvement in Libya going forward. On Friday, Obama held a conference call with Congressional leaders in which he laid out some details of his plan, and he is scheduled to give an address to the nation Monday evening on the topic.

On Sunday Gates said that as long as there is a no-fly zone, the U.S. will have a presence in the area, but that he didn’t know definitively how long the U.S. military would be engaged. Gates added that the Defense department was already planning to draw down its resources “in the very near future.”

“I don't think anybody knows the answer to that,” said Gates, responding to a question on ABC’s “This Week” of whether the U.S. would remain active in Libya until the end of the year.

Earlier this week NATO officials said that it would begin to take control of the enforcement of the no-fly zone over Libya as well as protecting Libya’s civilians.


Clinton, in another interview on CBS' "Face the Nation," sought to differentiate between the U.N. resolution's mandate to protect the civilian population and the president's stated goal of Gadhafi leaving power. 

"I think what you’re seeing is the difference between a military mission and a policy objective," Clinton said. "We have an ongoing political effort that is really picking up steam to see if we can’t persuade ... others to convince Gadhafi to leave. So, we see the planes going up, but that is just a piece of an overall strategy."


When Congress returns next week, after a weeklong recess, lawmakers will most likely be hunting down more concrete answers, especially about the increasing cost of the U.S. military’s actions, which some estimate could already be close to $1 billion.

The Senate Armed Services Committee on Friday announced it would hold a hearing on Libya on Thursday. The House Foreign Affairs Committee has also announced a hearing. A briefing for all House members is scheduled on Wednesday.