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Obama’s Libya Address: Confronting a ‘Known Messy Situation’

March 28, 2011 at 6:25 PM EST
President Obama delivers a prime-time speech Monday on the U.S. mission in Libya. Gwen Ifill discusses the stakes of the speech with Washington Post columnist Ruth Marcus and Politico columnist Roger Simon.
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GWEN IFILL: Next tonight, President Obama attempts to quiet his critics and make his Libya policies clear for the American people.

Ten days after the U.S. and its allies launched military action in Libya, the president will travel to the National Defense University at Fort McNair in Washington tonight to address several lingering questions. Among them, what goals does the U.S. have in mind?

President Obama, speaking at a town-hall meeting at a local public school today, repeated that U.S. involvement will be limited, both in time and in scope.

But in advance of tonight’s speech, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates made a round of Sunday talk-show appearances.

DAVID GREGORY, “Meet The Press”: Is Libya in our vital interests as a country?

SECRETARY OF DEFENSE ROBERT 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 of vital interest for the United States.

GWEN IFILL: Clinton said the administration had to intervene to stop Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi from slaughtering his own people.

SECRETARY OF STATE HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON: We are choosing among competing imperfect options. I mean, if we were sitting here, and Benghazi had been taken, and tens of thousands of people had been slaughtered, and hundreds of thousands had fled, some of them over the border to Egypt, destabilizing Egypt during its particularly delicate transition, we’d be sitting here, and people in the Congress and elsewhere would be saying, well, why didn’t we do something?

GWEN IFILL: As unrest in the Middle East has spread, Republicans and Democrats have questioned the administration’s action in some cases and lack of action in others.

SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL (R-Ky.), minority leader: So, now that the objective of establishing a no-fly zone has been reached, and our NATO allies are ready to assume the command and execution of this mission, it’s fair to ask, what is the role of our military and military alliance in providing support to an opposition that we are only now beginning to understand?

GWEN IFILL: Much of the public does appear uncertain about the Libyan intervention. A new poll taken by the Pew Research Center late last week finds 39 percent of those surveyed say the U.S. and its allies have a clear goal. Fifty percent say they do not.

The president has met with lawmakers about the Libyan situation, and hearings are expected to focus on the topic this week. The president will also continue making his case tomorrow in a round of interviews with network television anchors.

Now for more on what’s stake for the — at stake for the president tonight, we turn to Washington Post columnist Ruth Marcus and Politico columnist Roger Simon.

Welcome to you both.

Why is the president giving this speech tonight, Ruth?

RUTH MARCUS, The Washington Post: Because I’m actually surprised that he got to 39 percent of people who thought there were clear goals.

(LAUGHTER)

RUTH MARCUS: Thank you for laughing, Roger.

The — the public is confused and understandably so, about a whole bunch of things: What is the goal? Then what? After we achieve the goal, what’s Libya going to look like? Why is this country — sorry to do this — different from all other countries in the region, or are we going to be going into a bunch of different countries and intervening militarily?

And why — well, first, we weren’t going to do it. Then we were going to do it, and what to make of all of that. So, there are a lot of different pieces for the president to help unpack tonight. It turns out to be, though, I have to say, great timing, because things are looking up.

GWEN IFILL: So, they actually have some good stuff to peg on.

RUTH MARCUS: They’re — it is — you know, sometimes, if you dillydally, your timing ends up looking great. And this one looks good for the president in that sense.

GWEN IFILL: Of all those questions, Roger, which do you think is the most important?

ROGER SIMON, Politico: Oh, I think the most important is we know who the bad guy is, Moammar Gadhafi. We didn’t need much convincing. But who are the good guys? Who are these rebels?

In Egypt, in Cairo, we saw hundreds of thousands of people take to the streets, unarmed, topple a dictator, with no U.S. jets aiding them. Now in Libya, we see pictures of teenagers or young men firing their weapons into the air and shouting slogans.

Do we know what kind of government is going to be formed by the rebels? Is it going to be a democracy? I would certainly like to see one. Is it going to be a religious fundamentalist government? Is it going to have government that looks kindly upon al-Qaida?

Do we know, firstly, and, secondly, did we know at the time we sent up our jets and our missiles?

GWEN IFILL: Well, here’s — here’s the question. Tonight, big presidential prime-time speech, is the reason he has to give this speech because he hasn’t effectively communicated the answers to any of these questions, or is it that there are no really good answers to these questions?

RUTH MARCUS: Well, there is no answer to — known answer, as a former defense secretary might say, to the question, the fundamental question that Roger pointed out.

But the reality is the United States and the allies can help shape the answer to the question. I was at the White House today, and a senior official ticked off a whole bunch of different things that we’re trying to do to help make the outcomes, to shape the opposition.

And this is a different — this is not Vaclav Havel and — or even the opposition in Egypt, which had some years to come. This is going to — this is a much more inchoate group. It could be shaped. It could turn out well. It could turn out poorly. We could play a role in doing that.

We — we did not — we know — it’s a known messy situation, but it’s an international messy situation, at least.

GWEN IFILL: Well…

ROGER SIMON: What disturbs me about that — and I agree with you 100 percent, that’s what the goal is — what disturbs me is, we have gone from no-fly, which means jets can’t fly, enemy jets, Libyan jets, to protect the civilians on the ground by blowing up Libyan military armored columns.

GWEN IFILL: No-drive, essentially.

ROGER SIMON: No-drive, no-walk — and now to shaping a government. That’s way beyond regime change. We’re going to pick the next regime. We’re going to shape it. It’s not like our intelligence in the Mideast is that terrific.

RUTH MARCUS: Well…

GWEN IFILL: Well, we are not even agreed about regime change, are we?

RUTH MARCUS: Well, that’s the — I was going to say, that’s even jumping the gun. Before you stay up at night worrying about whether we’re going to be able to help a better group come to power, and do it in a way that doesn’t backfire on us…

ROGER SIMON: Yes.

RUTH MARCUS: … and make us look like the ugly Americans again, we are — Gadhafi has to go.

Here is what people, I think, are most confused about. The president has said — and his people have repeated — our — Gadhafi must go. He can — he no longer has legitimacy. So, one goal is, Gadhafi must go. But the goal of this international agreement is not Gadhafi must go.

GWEN IFILL: It’s humanitarian protection.

ROGER SIMON: Yes.

RUTH MARCUS: It’s humanitarian protection and everything else.

So, we have a mission whose authority is more limited than the goals that we have set out. And so we’re engaged in a bit of finger-crossing here that, with a combination of the military action against him, the financial sanctions that have soaked up a bunch of his money, the opposition of his people, and a bit of good luck, that he will be so cornered, that he will end up leaving, having to leave.

GWEN IFILL: Roger, I want you to put on your big-think foreign policy cap.

ROGER SIMON: Yes.  

GWEN IFILL: In 2007, when President Obama was candidate Obama, at his announcement speech, he said, “No American lives can resolve the political disagreement that lies at the heart of somebody else’s civil war.”

Are we seeing this president craft a new doctrine?

ROGER SIMON: I think we are, but I’m not sure of the limits of that doctrine.

We haven’t used the phrase policemen of the world in quite a while now, but I think we’re in danger of sort of an ultimate mission creep here, in that we’re setting ourselves up to become the policemen of the Mideast.

GWEN IFILL: But we’re not policing Bahrain or Yemen in the same way.

ROGER SIMON: No, but we intervened in Iraq on — on false information. We intervened in Afghanistan, for good reason, of course. Our — we were attacked. But, 10 years later, I’m not sure the reason is as clear that we’re still there.

But, having said all that, I expect to see tonight a — sort of a “Mission Accomplished” speech but without the banner and without the swagger. After all, the president has had some success in Libya, as Ruth has pointed out. No Libyan jets are flying. Civilians aren’t being massacred.

GWEN IFILL: No coalition casualties that we know of.

ROGER SIMON: That we know of. And, as we withdraw, and even our planes and go just to Tomahawk missiles, it seems like no Americans are going to be killed, and we have set up a ground work for rebel forces, perhaps, to topple Gadhafi.

GWEN IFILL: So, why isn’t it enough — why isn’t it enough for the president to simply go before the officers tonight at Defense National University — National Defense University, say, we set out to do this 10 days ago, we have done it, and we are now handing it over? What’s your problem?

RUTH MARCUS: Well, I actually think that’s going to be a pretty good summary of the speech.

But then he needs to address the what happens — the two questions: What happens next in Libya, and what about all these other countries? And I think…

GWEN IFILL: Why does he have to address that tonight?

RUTH MARCUS: Well, because — I think because people are very unsettled about it and people are understandably nervous about it. And they want to know if we’re going to be the policemen of the world.

I think that the argument is going to be in the coming days that Libya is something of a unique one-off situation. It’s near Egypt, and it would be destabilizing to Egypt if all these people went over the border. It’s got a terrible tyrant, who we knew was terrible, and who is very unpopular with his people. It is not going — if definitely — it is not a haven for al-Qaida, in the absence of somebody else, as Yemen would be.

GWEN IFILL: It’s a lot of things, but it’s not…

RUTH MARCUS: It’s not an ally, like Bahrain. And so you could — you could make an argument that we are the policemen, along with — as part of an international coalition, with Libya, just Libya.

GWEN IFILL: But only to a point.

RUTH MARCUS: Yes.

GWEN IFILL: But only to a point.

ROGER SIMON: Just two quick points.

It strikes me now, in seeing Secretary of State Clinton say it on the clip, that this destabilization of refugees has become the new domino theory. In the ’60s, the domino theory was, if South Vietnam goes communist, then Australia will go communist and San Francisco will go communist, if it weren’t already communist.

(LAUGHTER)

ROGER SIMON: Now we’re saying that — I think she said it — a hundred thousand or a few hundred thousand refugees moving into Egypt. Egypt is a big place. Cairo — you could fit a couple of hundred thousand people in Cairo and not destabilize anything. I’m not entirely convinced by that argument.

The second point I would like to make is, along with all those other things that I would love the president to address tonight that I think he may not is how much is this costing us? It’s not like we have the wealth we once had. It may be well over a billion dollars we have already spent on Tomahawk missiles alone. And there are a lot of things you can buy for a billion dollars these days.

GWEN IFILL: OK.

Well, in roughly an hour, we will know what the president has to say. Thank you for your thoughts in advance.