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Denis McDonough: ‘We’re Not Talking About An Exit Strategy’ in Libya

March 23, 2011 at 6:14 PM EDT
Gwen Ifill gets an update from Deputy National Security Adviser Denis McDonough on the coalition's air campaign in Libya, ground fighting between Moammar Gadhafi's troops and opposition forces, and the administration's talks with allies.

GWEN IFILL: Now joining us from the White House is Deputy National Security Adviser Denis McDonough.

Welcome, Mr. McDonough.

We just heard Secretary Gates say that there could be any number of possible outcomes. What is the desired and immediate outcome that the White House is hoping for?

DENIS MCDONOUGH, deputy national security adviser: Gwen, thanks a lot for the opportunity to be with you tonight. I really appreciate it.

Look, the president explained to the country last Friday afternoon that we are setting aside for ourselves a very tightly defined, finite, accomplishable mission here in the early part of this effort, where we’re going to shape the environment using our unique assets and then enable our international colleagues, our allies in Europe and our partners in the Arab world to take over the conduct of the no-fly zone.

We’re making good strides toward that. He also set out an effort to try to protect the civilians in Benghazi. We have done that, thanks to the good work of our Marines, our sailors, our airmen. And we’re making good progress towards both of those goals.

What happens after then is obviously we are going to watch the U.N. continue to do its work. Importantly, you will remember that the U.N. appointed a special envoy in the first Security Council resolution, about two weeks ago now. So we’re going to continue to work with the international community, drawing on all the resources, not just our resources, which at the moment are quite taxed, given everything that the United States is doing in Japan, in Afghanistan, in Iraq.

We think it’s an appropriate division of labor here, and we’re working with our colleagues to set that up.

GWEN IFILL: Both House Speaker John Boehner just this afternoon and even Democrats like Sen. Jim Webb have said that the U.S. has lacked a clear policy and certainly hasn’t consulted widely enough with Congress.

What do you say to them?

DENIS MCDONOUGH: Well, we got a let letter from the speaker today. We look forward to continuing the conversation with him.

The president had a very good meeting with him on Friday. I happened to have a good discussion with him on Saturday. We have been talking with Congress about this now for a couple weeks. But the bottom line is we had an opportunity to move after we had brought the international community along with us last Thursday night in that U.N. Security Council resolution.

We had an opportunity to move with alacrity and speed and agility, as our armed forces always do, and protected Benghazi. And we have turned the Gadhafi forces around. We feel pretty good about that. But now it’s up to working with our international colleagues to establish the kind of command-and-control that Jim referred to a minute ago, work with Prime Minister Cameron and his conference next week in London, where the international community, Europeans, Arabs, international organizations, put a political plan together to make sure that we have the future that the Libyans want.

So this is going to be a comprehensive effort. But, importantly, Gwen, it’s not resting solely on our shoulders. It’s something that we’re going to share with the international community.


DENIS MCDONOUGH: And we think we’re making good progress on that.

GWEN IFILL: And the international community had another meeting today, in which there was no progress made on this idea of handing this over to NATO.

Secretary Clinton talked about handing it over to NATO. You talked about having a finite plan. Others have talked about it being days, not weeks, until this happens. Is it going to happen? I believe you — there you are — you’re back with us. Go ahead.

DENIS MCDONOUGH: I just don’t think that’s accurate Gwen, to say that we haven’t made progress at NATO.

As I think you saw in the newspapers today, starting this morning, we were enforcing the arms embargo as a result of NATO action. We’re finalizing the command-and-control infrastructure for the no-fly zone.

But, you know, what is important, over the last two days, the enforcement of the no-fly zone was done principally, if not entirely, by non-U.S. airplanes. Now, the United States still flew important missions as it relates to gathering intelligence, as it relates to fueling those airplanes, and as it relates to jamming certain communications.

But the bottom line is that this is now the international community that’s stepping up. So, I just don’t think — I just don’t agree with the — the premise of the question.

GWEN IFILL: Secretary Clinton said that it would be easiest if Col. Gadhafi left. And we heard Adm. Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, say earlier in this week that he didn’t know if that’s going to happen, that they had to envision a possibility that he would still be in office even after this is over.

How do you determine success, and how do you know if he is still there that the entire cycle doesn’t begin again?

DENIS MCDONOUGH: Well, you know, we didn’t set out to do regime change here. We set out, as I said, to do a very targeted mission, which is to enable — to shape the environment using our unique assets to enable our international partners to take over the no-fly zone.

We’re on the verge of doing that. We also said, as the president outlined to the country on Friday afternoon, that we were going to make sure that we turned back Gadhafi’s forces from Benghazi. We have done that. I’m very proud of the work of our forces, Marines, sailors, airmen, soldiers. They have done that, at great, great sacrifice, but with great agility and great alacrity.

And we have turned back what everybody assumed was going to be a siege of Benghazi. So we’re going to — we set out these very concrete efforts. We’re going to fulfill those. Then we’re going to bring the rest of the international community along, so again we can share some of this burden, because again we’re asking our troops to do an awful lot.

And, frankly, we’re asking the American people to do an awful lot right now.


DENIS MCDONOUGH: And we think that we ought to right-size this thing, so that we do it just right.

GWEN IFILL: Help me get this right. You are defining success as holding Gadhafi’s forces back from these key cities, Benghazi, Zawiyah, other cities, Misrata, and then handing this over, at least the lead position over, to international partners. The U.S. would still be involved, though?

DENIS MCDONOUGH: Oh, in fact, we ensured that the United Nations Security Council resolution that was passed last Thursday night had additional tools to allow us to be involved but not solely our military. We’re asking our military to do an awful lot right now.

So, what we have made sure is that there’s non-military tools, additional sanctions, additional limitations on arms that get to him, additional ability to freeze his assets, so we can set aside that money that’s not the money for him and his family, Gwen. That’s the Libyan people’s money. So that’s set aside for them, frozen assets, until there’s a change in Libya, so that they can have the kind of future and make the kind of investments that Libyans want…


DENIS MCDONOUGH: … in education and opportunity.

So, we’ll be involved. Of course we will.

GWEN IFILL: The success of this mission, then, is not necessarily whether we leave or whether we stay. It’s what? I guess I’m trying to figure out, what is the exit strategy?

DENIS MCDONOUGH: Well, we’re not talking about an exit strategy. As I said, the president defined it very clearly the other night in terms of our initial efforts in this undertaking.

We carved out a space where we will be able to enable our partners to take over the no-fly zone. We have turned the troops back from Benghazi, protected those civilians. And we continue to degrade his forces, so they can’t undertake the kind of mass atrocity that we all feared just a week ago, and as you reported on your show.

So, that’s an initial success. But the longer-term success is going to take additional efforts. And it’s not going to be a solely military effort, by any means.

GWEN IFILL: Will we hear from the president again on this, this week?

DENIS MCDONOUGH: Oh, the president has been talking about it an awful lot. And you will continue to hear from him, because he does think it’s important, not to only explain to the American people, but to express his appreciation for our armed forces, all the work that they’re doing, and, frankly, all the work that our humanitarian assistance workers are doing to ensure that there’s food and water for those Libyans.


DENIS MCDONOUGH: And so you will hear the president talk more and more about it.

GWEN IFILL: Deputy National Security Adviser Denis McDonough, thank you very much.