Interview Hillary Rodham Clinton, US Secretary of State and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, Washington, DC, March 27, 2011
QUESTION: And joining me now in their first interview since the attacks on Libya began, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Defense Secretary Robert Gates. Madam and Mr. Secretary, thanks so much for joining us.
I’ll start with you, Secretary Gates. The mission is a no-fly zone and civilian protection, but does not include removing Qadhafi from power, even though regime change is stated U.S. policy. So why not have, as part of the mission, regime change, removing Qadhafi from power?
SECRETARY GATES: Well, first of all, I think you don’t want ever to set a set of goals or a mission – military mission where you can’t be confident of accomplishing your objectives. And as we have seen in the past, regime change is a very complicated business. It sometimes takes a long time. Sometimes it can happen very fast, but it was never part of the military mission.
QUESTION: NATO has assumed command and control for the no-fly zone, or is this weekend, but not yet for the civilian protection. When do we anticipate that happening?
SECRETARY GATES: I think Hillary’s been more engaged with that diplomacy than I have.
SECRETARY CLINTON: Well, we hope, Jake, that NATO, which is making the military planning for the civilian protection mission, will meet in the next few days, make a decision, which we expect to be positive, to include that mission, and then just as the arms embargo and the no-fly zone has been transitioned to NATO command and control, the civilian protection mission will as well.
QUESTION: 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.”
SECRETARY 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 UN peacekeeping force which we are supporting. We’re beginning to see the world coalesce around the very obvious fact that Mr. Gbagbo no longer is president. Mr. Ouattara is the president.
So each of these situations is different, but in Libya, when a leader says spare nothing, show no mercy and calls out air force attacks on his own people, that crosses a line that people in the world had decided they could not tolerate.
QUESTION: When do we know that the mission is done? The no-fly zone has succeeded, civilian protection has stopped. When do you – when —
SECRETARY GATES: I would say, for all practical purposes, the implementation of the no-fly zone is complete. Now it will need to be sustained, but it can be sustained with a lot less effort than what it took to set it up. As I indicated in my testimony on the Hill, you don’t establish a no-fly zone by just declaring it. You go in and suppress the air defenses, and that mission is largely complete.
I think we have made a lot of progress on the humanitarian side and his ability to move armor, to move toward a Benghazi or a place like that has pretty well been eliminated. Now we’ll have to keep our eye on it because he still has ground forces at his beck and call. But the reality is they’re under a lot of pressure. Their logistics – there are some signs that they’re moving back to the west away from Ajdabiyah and other places.
So I think that we have prevented the large-scale slaughter that was beginning to take place, has taken place in some places. And so I think that we are at a point 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.
SECRETARY CLINTON: Jake, I would just add two points to what Secretary Gates said. The United States Senate called for a no-fly zone in a resolution that it passed, I think, on March the 1st, and that mission is on the brink of having been accomplished. And there was a lot of congressional support to do something.
There is no perfect option when one is looking at a situation like this. I think that the President ordered the best available option. The United States worked with the international community to make sure that there was authorization to do what we have helped to accomplish.
But what is quite remarkable here is that NATO assuming the responsibility for the entire mission means that the United States will move to a supporting role. Just as our allies are helping us in Afghanistan where we bear the disproportionate amount of the sacrifice and the cost, we are supporting a mission through NATO that was very much initiated by European requests joined by Arab requests.
I think this is a watershed moment in international decision making. We learned a lot in the 1990s. We saw what happened in Rwanda. It took a long time in the Balkans, in Kosovo to deal with a tyrant. But I think – and what has happened since March 1st – and we’re not even done with the month – demonstrates really remarkable leadership.
SECRETARY GATES: I would just add one other thing, in sort of a concrete manifestation where we are in this, and that is we and the Department of Defense are already beginning to do our planning in terms of beginning to draw down resources, first from support of the no-fly zone and then from the humanitarian mission. Now that may not start in the next day or two, but I certainly expect it to in the very near future.
QUESTION: Well, and I wanted to follow on that. How long are we going to be there in that support role?
SECRETARY GATES: Well, I think the – as I say, we will begin diminishing the level of our engagement, the level of resources we have involved in this, but as long as there is a no-fly zone and we have some unique capabilities to bring to bear – for example, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, some tanking ability – we will continue to have a presence. But a lot of these – a lot of the forces that we will have available other than the ISR – are forces that are already assigned to Europe or have been assigned to Italy or are at sea in the Mediterranean.
QUESTION: I’ve heard NATO say that this – that they anticipate – that some NATO officials say this could be three months, but people in the Pentagon think it could be far longer than that. Do you think we’ll be gone by the end of the year? Will the mission be over by the end of the year?
SECRETARY GATES: I don’t think anybody knows the answer to that.
QUESTION: Do you think Libya posed an actual or imminent threat to the United States?
SECRETARY GATES: No, no. 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. They’re fragile.
QUESTION: Egypt and Tunisia.
SECRETARY 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.
SECRETARY CLINTON: Jake, but —
QUESTION: Secretary Clinton, how does –
SECRETARY CLINTON: Jake, I just want to add too, because I know that there’s been a lot of questions, and those questions deserve to be asked and answered. The President is going to address the nation on Monday night.
Imagine we were sitting here and Benghazi had been overrun, a city of 700,000 people, and tens of thousands of people had been slaughtered, hundreds of thousands had fled and, as Bob said, either with nowhere to go or overwhelming Egypt while it’s in its own difficult transition, and we were sitting here. The cries would be, “Why did the United States not do anything? Why – how could you stand by when France and the United Kingdom and other Europeans and the Arab League and your Arab partners were saying you’ve got to do something?” So every decision that we make is going to have plusses and minuses.
QUESTION: You heard the Secretary of Defense say that Libya did not pose an actual or imminent threat to the nation, and bearing in mind what you just said, I’m still wondering how the Administration reconciles the attack without congressional approval with then-candidate Obama saying in 2007 the President does not have power under the Constitution to unilaterally authorize a military attack in a situation that does not involve stopping an actual or imminent threat to the nation and, as a senator, you yourself in 2007 said this about President Bush.
SENATOR CLINTON: If the administration believes that any – any use of force against Iran is necessary, the president must come to Congress to seek that authority.
QUESTION: Why not go to Congress?
SECRETARY CLINTON: Well, we would welcome congressional support, but I don’t think that this kind of internationally authorized intervention where we are one of a number of countries participating to enforce a humanitarian mission is the kind of unilateral action that either I or President Obama were speaking of several years ago. I think that this had a limited timeframe, a very clearly defined mission, which we are in the process of fulfilling.
QUESTION: I want to get to a couple other topics before you guys go, and one of them is in Yemen. President Saleh, a crucial ally in counterterrorism, seems quite on his way out. Secretary Gates, you said this week we have not done any post-Saleh planning. How dangerous is a post-Saleh world, a post-Saleh Yemen, to the United States?
SECRETARY GATES: Well, I think it is a real concern, because the most active and, at this point, perhaps the most aggressive branch of al-Qaida – al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula – operates out of Yemen. And we have had a lot of counterterrorism cooperation from President Saleh and Yemeni security services. So if that government collapses or is replaced by one that is dramatically more weak, then I think we’ll face some additional challenges out of Yemen. There’s no question about it. It’s a real problem.
QUESTION: Secretary Clinton, on Pakistan, Pakistan has been trying to block U.S. counterterrorism efforts in the FATA region, it continues to work with terrorists to attack India, it held a U.S. diplomat in its prisons for several weeks, as I don’t need to tell you. Has this relationship gotten worse in the last six months, U.S.-Pakistan?
SECRETARY CLINTON: Well, Jake, it’s a very challenging relationship because there have been some problems. We were very appreciative of getting our diplomat out of Pakistan, and that took cooperation by the Government of Pakistan. We have cooperated very closely together in going after terrorists who pose a threat to both us and to the Pakistanis themselves. But it’s a very difficult relationship because Pakistan is in a hard position trying to figure out how it’s going to contend with its own internal extremist threat. But I think on the other hand, we’ve also developed good lines of communication, good opportunities for cooperation, but it’s something we have to work on every day.
QUESTION: And finally, we’ve talked a bit about the end of this operation, how it ends. I’m wondering if you can envision the United States supporting a plan where Qadhafi is exiled. Would the U.S. be willing to support safe haven, immunity from prosecution, and access to funds as a way to end this conflict?
SECRETARY CLINTON: Well, Jake, we are nowhere near that kind of negotiation. I’ll be going to London on Tuesday for a conference that the British Government is hosting. There will be a number of countries, not only those participating in the enforcement of the resolution, but also those who are pursuing political and other interventions. And the United Nations has a special envoy who will also be actively working with Qadhafi and those around him.
We have sent a clear message that it is time for him to transition out of power. The African Union has now called for a democratic transition. We think that there will be developments along that line in the weeks and months ahead, but I can’t, sitting here today, predict to you exactly how it’s going to play out. But we believe that Libya will have a better shot in the future if he departs and leaves power.
QUESTION: All right. Secretary Clinton, Secretary Gates, thank you so much for joining us.
SECRETARY CLINTON: Thank you.