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U.S. Military Takes Lead Role in Libya, But Endgame Remains Unclear

March 21, 2011 at 5:15 PM EDT
Gwen Ifill discusses the new international coalition's military mission in Libya with retired Maj. Gen. Dutch Remkes, a 32-year Air Force veteran who helped oversee the no-fly zone in Iraq, and the International Crisis Group's Robert Malley, who served at the National Security Council during the Clinton administration.
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GWEN IFILL: Now, for a closer look at the situation in Libya, we turn to retired Maj. Gen. Dutch Remkes. He spent 32 years in the Air Force, including service — service as a top commander of Operation Northern Watch, the no-fly zone over Iraq. And Robert Malley, he served as director for Near East and South Asian affairs at the National Security Council during the Clinton administration. He’s now Middle East and North Africa program director at the International Crisis Group.

Welcome to you both.

General, I would like to start with you.

What are our goals in Libya as a coalition? And are they being met so far?

MAJ. GEN. DUTCH REMKES (RET.), U.S. Air Force: Yes, Gwen, I think they are being met.

The goals obviously are to prevent Saddam Hussein’s troops from committing atrocities against the civilian populations in those large population centers across the northern part of Libya. (Editor’s note: The leader this guest is referencing is Moammar Gadhafi.) And we want to prevent Moammar Gadhafi from hurting the innocent civilians there. So I think, so far, things are going quite well.

GWEN IFILL: So how do we know that we are protecting the civilians, as we say?

MAJ. GEN. DUTCH REMKES: Well, we will be watching them very closely throughout the next several days to see what the troops on the ground actually do.

And Gen. Carter – Gen. Carter Ham had already mentioned that one of the things that he’s asked the folks to do on the ground, the signal from them should be very simple: Lay down your arms and back away from the civilians.

GWEN IFILL: Robert Malley, are we meeting the goals that we set? Are they worthy goals?

ROBERT MALLEY, International Crisis Group: Well, militarily, I think, as we just heard, that probably we are meeting them, although we’re going to have to see what happens if Col. Gadhafi’s forces are attacking in cities outside of Benghazi and other cities. Do we then have to go in to protect the civilians in those cities? That becomes much harder and probably not possible to do from the air.

The real problem is, although the military goals could be achieved, I think we’re hearing already that political goals, the political success is going to be determined by whether Col. Gadhafi stays in power. However many times we may say that this is a limited operation to protect civilians, I think the stakes are clear. In order for this to be defined politically as a victory, the United States and the other countries are going to want to see — or at least the European countries — are going want to see president – Col. Gadhafi out of power.

GWEN IFILL: Part of the political and diplomatic underpinning for this action had to do with the support that came from the Arab League, which is now saying they don’t know if this is what was intended. Does that undercut the mission?

ROBERT MALLEY: Well, we’re going to have to see. I mean, this was eminently predictable, even though it may seem eminently absurd, that the same Arab League that backed the resolution and that knew what it was getting into, the next day, starts raising questions about it.

I think it tells us something about the state of the Arab world today. Everything is uncertain. Everything is in flux. And so what you’re seeing is that Arab leaders are trying to assess where their public opinions are. They are against Col. Gadhafi’s repression of his own people. They don’t like the sight of Western airplanes bombing Libya.

And so I think we are going to see a lot of zigzagging from Arab leaders who today don’t really have their footing.

GWEN IFILL: General, part of the concern about these Arab — from the Arab leaders and other critics actually is that they didn’t think that a no-fly zone would be war, I guess, would be so bloody, would be so disruptive.

Is this a basic — you have — you have certainly managed no-fly-zone efforts before. Was this a basic misunderstanding of what that meant?

MAJ. GEN. DUTCH REMKES: I think so. The critical piece of this was that we had to make sure that our forces were not threatened by Saddam — or — I keep saying Saddam — by Gadhafi’s surface-to-air missiles.

So the most important thing for us to do is to make that sure those things were no longer a threat to our forces. Remember that he initially called for cease-fire, and then within hours was already shooting at his own civilians, at his own populations. And so we couldn’t take him at his word anymore. And I think, at that point, the gloves have to come off, and we have to take down the SAM sites to make sure that Gadhafi is not able to use those.

GWEN IFILL: So, should the goal here, General, be to stop the incursion by Gadhafi’s forces or to stop Gadhafi himself?

MAJ. GEN. DUTCH REMKES: It should be towards the forces. The mandate, the U.N. mandate 1973, is very clear. It’s to stop the forces from attacking innocent civilians around the countryside. That’s the mandate. And that’s what the coalition forces are trying to do.

GWEN IFILL: But is it possible, Robert Malley, to do one and not the other?

ROBERT MALLEY: I mean, it’s unclear. It depends. If you define — if the goal is to protect the civilians, and you take the position that Col. Gadhafi is a danger to civilians, to civilians in Libya, then by definition, you have to take him out.

That’s not the mission that many countries signed up to. And I think you’re going to see more and more dissent. You’re seeing it already. The Russians, Chinese — you mentioned the Arab League — are not comfortable with what’s happening.

There’s problems that come out, even if you — if the scenario is bad, I mean, if for example, you end up with a division between eastern Libya and the rest, that’s not good. That’s certainly not good for the Libyans. It may be something we could live with. But you may see sort of an entrenched division between those two sides.

Even a good scenario could be very problematic, if in fact Col. Gadhafi is toppled. What happens to Libya afterwards? What happens to that division between the east and the rest? We don’t know Libya that well. It’s a black box. In fact, in some ways, it’s a blacker box than even Iraq was. And Col. Gadhafi and whatever comes after him, if in fact he is toppled, is an unknown for us.

GWEN IFILL: Gen. Remkes, Gen. Ham today said that they had succeeded so far in degrading Gen. Gadhafi’s — or Col. Gadhafi’s capabilities, military capability.

Is it possible for that to be enough? You degrade his ability to wreak havoc, and then you walk away? Or is one — is it that once we’re in there, it becomes more difficult and more difficult to come out?

MAJ. GEN. DUTCH REMKES: Well, I think, as Mr. Malley already indicated, it is going to be quite fluid on the ground for the next several days. And one of the scenarios you could see play out is that the rebels become emboldened, and perhaps even those forces who are loyal to Gadhafi may throw in their lot with — with the rebels at that point. It’s hard to tell at this point.

GWEN IFILL: What about the possibility of just simply handing the reins of this operation over to NATO? Is that even – Gen. Ham seemed to — I think the way he put it today was, you can’t just shake hands and walk away.

Is that also going to turn out to be a little more complicated than first anticipated?

MAJ. GEN. DUTCH REMKES: I don’t think so.

We have been working with these coalition partners for many, many years, as you know. And NATO has certainly a very strong and capable command-and-control function. It’s been that way for over 50 years. So, I don’t see that as being a real challenge.

I think you are always going to see the U.S. involved in some way, whether it’s on the sides or as part of the main operation. But as the president said, we’re going to start handing out the reins to NATO and the coalition forces to carry on.

GWEN IFILL: The president today in his remarks in Chile was saying — he must have said a half-a-dozen times, this is an international undertaking.

ROBERT MALLEY: Right.

GWEN IFILL: Is it really?

ROBERT MALLEY: Well, it is. I mean, in some ways, this is President Obama’s chance to do what President Bush did in Iraq, but in a very different way, in three significant different ways.

One is it is international. It has a Security Council mandate, which Iraq didn’t have. Second, the U.S. is not at the forefront. He’s letting other countries take the lead. And third — and this is really the wager, and we will have to see if it works — he’s hoping that the people of Libya, that the rebels, that people around Col. Gadhafi step in and get rid of Col. Gadhafi, so that you don’t need ground forces to do it.

If he succeeds, it will be a success that is in some ways completely the opposite of what happened in Iraq, but it in some ways a roll of the dice, because again we simply don’t know enough about Libya to know how things will unfold.

GWEN IFILL: Well, if we don’t know enough about Libya, General Ham (Remkes), I wonder if you agree with that. And, secondarily, is it possible to arm the rebels without getting on the ground and literally handing them the information, or at least having intelligence that allows us to hand the power over to them, if they themselves are not capable at this point?

MAJ. GEN. DUTCH REMKES: I don’t know that we can’t say that they’re not capable just yet. We don’t know enough about anything really on the ground just yet. We need to watch as this thing unfolds over the next several days to see what the rebels are able to do.

As I said before, I think, at some point, as we have seen in some other places, Egypt namely, is that at some point the military does throw in its lot with the civilian population, and they help them achieve their ends.

GWEN IFILL: It doesn’t seem like that’s happening, or at least we haven’t seen any sign of that happening yet so far in Libya, though, Gen. Remkes.

MAJ. GEN. DUTCH REMKES: No, it’s not happening just yet.

But, again, as the rebels become more emboldened over time, and no longer have the attacks occurring against them from Gadhafi’s troops against them, I think you’re going to see them become more bold and start to win over some of the military.

GWEN IFILL: Robert Ham (Malley), how much time — Robert Malley, how much time are we talking about?

ROBERT MALLEY: Who knows? I mean, really, these — and the general knows far better than I, these things are much easier to get into than to get out of. And this could be another case where it may drag on longer than we want.

Again, it comes to the question you asked at the beginning. Is this about protecting Benghazi and the civilians there, or is it going to end up being much more? And, as the general said, if, tomorrow, the rebels counterattack, and Gadhafi forces attack the counterattackers, what does it mean for us? Do we then go after Gadhafi’s forces because he has fought back?

This could get quite, quite complicated. You asked me — the first question, was this the right mission? Is it worth it? Of course, if this is going to end up saving the civilians of Benghazi, people are going to look back and say it was the right thing to do.

But in the meantime, I think we should be worrying about all the things that could go wrong, and making sure that they don’t.

GWEN IFILL: Robert Malley, Dutch Remkes, thank you both very much.

ROBERT MALLEY: Thank you.

MAJ. GEN. DUTCH REMKES: Yes, ma’am.