President Obama has been criticized on a variety of fronts 9 days into the U.S. leading an international coalition commiting to an air war in Libya. One absolutely legitimate complaint is that Obama has not articulated the U.S. participation in the effort to the American public. Because it started when he had just began a trip to Latin America, and the fact that he did not go before Congress seeking approval, and a host of other reasons, it has led to some extensive carping from all quarters.
On Sunday, the two leading Cabinet members, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Secretary of Defense Bob Gates appeared on three major network shows (but pointedly did not do Fox News Sunday), and presented to the public the vital details about the U.S. mission's goals, and why the U.S. has chosen Libya, when other nations in the Middle East, such as Syria and Bahrain, are also exploding with their leaders indiscriminately attacking citizens aspiring for more democracy in their homelands. This exchange between ABC's This Week guest host Jake Tapper and Clinton and Gates articulated that question:
TAPPER : what do you say to the people in Ivory Coast or Syria who say where's our no-fly zone? We're being killed by our government too.
CLINTON: Well, there's not an aircraft — there's not an air force being used. There is not the same level of force. The situation is significantly different enough that the world has not come together. However, in Ivory Coast we have a U.N. peacekeeping force which we are supporting. We are beginning to see the world coalesce around the very obvious fact that Mr. Gbagbo no longer is president. Mr. Ouattara is the president.
So you know, each of these situations is different but in Libya when a leader says spare nothing, show no mercy and calls out air — air force attacks on his own people, that crosses a line that people in the world had decided they could not tolerate.
What made headlines on Sunday was Gates' frank admission that Libya by itself is not that important to the U.S. in terms of its own national security interests:
TAPPER: Do you think Libya posed an actual or imminent threat to the United States?
GATES: No, no. It was not — it was not a vital national interest to the United States, but it was an interest and it was an interest for all of the reasons Secretary Clinton talked about. The engagement of the Arabs, the engagement of the Europeans, the general humanitarian question that was at stake. There was another piece of this though that certainly was a consideration. You've had revolutions on both the East and the West of Libya.
TAPPER: Egypt and Tunisia.
GATES: Egypt and Tunisia.
So you had a potentially significantly destabilizing event taking place in Libya that put at risk potentially the revolutions in both Tunisia and Egypt. And that was another consideration I think we took into account.
Also on This Week was former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who has been making the rounds of the political talk shows over the past month with the publication of his memoir, Known and Unknown. "Rummy" addressed the fact that while the U.S. and their allies say that the goal of the mission is not to extricate Libyan leader Muammar Gadhafi, the U.S. does not want on their hands what happened 20 years ago, after Operation Desert Storm.
There, the goal was to get Iraq leader Saddam Hussein's forces out of neighboring Kuwait - the mission was not to get rid of him. Saddam then ended up boasting about how he had survived the U.S. Rumsfeld said the U.S. can't allow that to happen again:
TAPPER: You seem to be suggesting, Mr. Secretary, that Libya was not high on the priority list in that region for the U.S. to be involved in. I'm wondering, if you had been secretary of defense as Gadhafi's troops stormed into Benghazi, and Gadhafi himself threatened no mercy, and there was a very real fear of a mass slaughter, what would you have recommended to the president?
RUMSFELD: Well, I wasn't there, so I can't answer that question. I will say that I think that President Obama and Secretary Clinton are both experiencing the differences from serving in a legislative branch and then serving in executive positions. The perspective is enormously different. And I think you can almost see them transition in their thinking and in their handling of this.
I listened to Secretary Gates. And I must say, I agree with a lot of what he says. He said, when someone asked, well, how many people might be killed or how long will it last or what will it cost, there's no one who can answer those questions. And he's absolutely right in that respect.
I think that you have to pick it up from where we are now. And where we are now is not where your question started, what would you do in the beginning? The fact is, we are involved. And the prestige of the United States is involved.
And think back to the gulf war, the First Gulf War in the early 1990s. Saddam Hussein, when it was over, said he had fought the mother of all battles, and President George Herbert Walker Bush was gone, Margaret Thatcher and the U.K. was gone, and he was still in office. And the implication of that was that he had defeated the United States.
And we are involved — let there be no question we're now involved in Libya. And if Gadhafi stays on, he will feel he has fought the mother of all battles against the United States. And it will be damaging to us, just as our demeanor in Somalia was damaging, the situation in Lebanon was damaging, and that will embolden others of his ilk.