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Gadhafi’s Exit Remains Central to U.S., Coalition Strategy in Libya

March 29, 2011 at 6:26 PM EDT
As Washington offered divided responses to President Obama's Libya speech, coalition leaders gathered in London to discuss the mission in Libya. Judy Woodruff discusses Libya with Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., who serves on the Armed Services Committee, and Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., who serves on the Foreign Relations Committee.

JUDY WOODRUFF: For more on Libya and the president’s speech, we get the views of two senators.

Rhode Island Democrat Jack Reed is on the Armed Services Committee. And Georgia Republican Johnny Isakson is on the Foreign Relations Committee. I spoke to them a short time ago.

Senators, thank you very much for joining us, Sen. Reed and Sen. Isakson.

Before I ask you about what President Obama said last night, Sen. Isakson, just quickly, do you believe the U.S. should be involved militarily in Libya in the first place?

SEN. JOHNNY ISAKSON, R-Ga.: I think we have done the right thing but in the wrong way. I think the president should have first come to Congress, as did Bill Clinton when we went into Kosovo and George Bush went into Iraq and Afghanistan.

But I do think it’s important, when democracy is emerging around the world, for the United States to be a supporter of those who want freedom and peace.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And what about you, Sen. Reed? Should the U.S. be there at all?

SEN. JACK REED, D-R.I.: I think the president has very adroitly assembled a diplomatic initiative that complemented a very limited military initiative. We set the — basically set the parameters for turning it over to our allies. They’re in charge now. I think the military role has been important, and I think it’s been complemented by very adroit diplomacy.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Senator Isakson, let’s turn to the president’s speech. Did he answer the questions that you have in his remarks last night?

SEN. JOHNNY ISAKSON: Well, he left silent addressing how he came really to the conclusion and the fact that he didn’t involve the Congress.

I think he did explain his thought process, as the leader, pretty well, but I thought it was short on facts on how we got to where we were and why we waited so long to get there.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And — and those are questions that you think should be answered at this point?

SEN. JOHNNY ISAKSON: Well, it’s too late to redo that. That is past.

What is important are the next few days ahead. And I don’t think we — I think we need to continue our support for the uprising that’s taking place and support liberty and democracy for the Libyan people. And I don’t think we ought to take anything off the table. We can deal with circumstances as they come about. That’s the best way to go about an operation like this.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But, Sen. Reed, the president did take further military action to remove Col. Gadhafi off the table. Is that something you agree with?

SEN. JACK REED: Well, the president, under this international coalition and working through NATO, still has a tremendous military leverage in terms of airpower, which is not just a no-fly zone, but also a no-drive zone.

And if Gadhafi begins to — renews attacks against his people, then there will be very, very, I think, severe airstrikes against his forces. The noose, I think, is beginning to tighten around him, in terms of military power that we’re projecting through the air, diplomatic isolation, economic isolation.

All these forces are coming together. Ultimately, I think it will be a political solution that causes him to leave the country. And at that point, then I think we’re, through the United Nations, in a position to help stabilize the country and also to develop it as — along the wishes of the Libyan people, more democratic.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Sen. Isakson, do you agree with that formula, that it’s likely to be a political and an economic set of circumstances that would cause Gadhafi to leave?

SEN. JOHNNY ISAKSON: Well, I think we all hope that would be the — what happens, but by taking things off the table that might be alternatives, you don’t have as much encouragement that that would be what happens.

I agree with Ambassador Rice. I think she expressed it just perfectly in the tape we saw just a little bit before.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, what about – Sen. Isakson, staying with you, you know, the president spoke last night about the circumstances under which the U.S. should get involved, unilaterally and then as part of a coalition. He said, if U.S. core interests are at stake, it could be a — it would be a cause for unilateral action. But he said, if it’s a humanitarian set of circumstances, if it’s genocide, a regional conflict, he said it should be — we should be part of a coalition.

What do you make of that? Do you agree with that?

SEN. JOHNNY ISAKSON: Well, you know, President Bush put together coalitions in both Iraq and Afghanistan. And unity among democratic countries around the world is very important in efforts like this.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, you’re saying you — that’s an idea that you accept?

SEN. JOHNNY ISAKSON: Coalitions — coalitions make sense. Leadership of coalitions makes sense. And we provide a lot of leadership.

This is more of a committee operation than a leadership operation, but I still agree coalitions are important.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Sen. Reed, what’s your take on that, whether it’s an Obama doctrine or something else?

SEN. JACK REED: Well, coalitions, I think, provide, not only the forces, but also the political legitimacy to deal with some of these issues. And I think it’s particularly notable in this circumstance that this coalition has components from the Arab world.

The Arab League was one of the first to take a strong stand against Gadhafi, then the United Nations. And I think the — this coalition has durability and strength and legitimacy. And it also will marshal more combat power and allow us to minimize our combat commitment and essentially also reduce the cost to us. And those are important factors also.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Sen. Reed, are you comfortable at this point with what is happening there, that the leadership of this military effort is being handed off? And can you help us better understand, what is the ongoing role of the U.S. in that coalition?

SEN. JACK REED: Well, the — NATO is now in charge of the operation. There’s a Canadian general officer who is the commander.

We still provide very critical and, in some cases, unique capabilities, reconnaissance, some search-and-rescue, and some activities that are not available to our NATO forces, our — our other allies. But essentially now, this is a combined NATO mission. A lot of the missions are being flown by the British and the French.

We have contributions from the Qataris, who are not part of NATO, but are contributing. So, this is now a truly international coalition. And I think that, in itself, sends a very strong message to Gadhafi. It’s not him against the United States; it’s him against the world. And those are not good chances for him.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And what about you, Sen. Isakson? I think, a moment ago, you used the word committee. How comfortable are you with this international group that’s now engaged in Libya?

SEN. JOHNNY ISAKSON: Well, as I said, coalitions are important, but this coalition wouldn’t exist in terms of its capabilities militarily if it wasn’t for the United States.

As Jack has said, we bring very unique talents and equipment and know-how to enforce a no-fly zone, as well as some of the intelligence that we’re gathering to do the best work we can there. So, without the United States’ leadership, no matter whether you have a committee or not, what’s happening right now wouldn’t be happening.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, does it matter to you the makeup of that coalition, that it involves some Arab states, the number of countries involved, and so forth?

SEN. JOHNNY ISAKSON: I think the Arab League’s profound statement of about eight days ago was critically important in that part of the world. And I think that gave us a good foundation to do what we’ve done so far. I hope we just finish the job.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Sen. Isakson, looking ahead, what if Colonel Gadhafi doesn’t leave? What if his forces continue to push, and the air and even ground support isn’t enough to dislodge him, along with the other political, diplomatic moves?

SEN. JOHNNY ISAKSON: Well, if that happens, I think that would be very unfortunate. What’s happening in the Middle East is historic, somewhat compared to the Berlin Wall’s falling, with Tunisia and Egypt becoming more of a democracy through peaceful revolution by their people.

This is not as peaceful, but it’s a critical time. If, for some reason, Gadhafi and those who would be radical dictators prevail, then the opportunity for a more democratic and more peaceful Middle East may be lost. We learned in the 1970s, when the shah fell in Iran, that by not engaging, we can have the worst of things happen in terms of leadership vacuums, which — what happened in Iran as the ayatollahs came in.

So, we need to stay the course and make sure the end result, which is for Gadhafi to leave, is the end result.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And I hear you saying that that — if that involves deeper military action by the U.S., you would — you would go along with that?

SEN. JOHNNY ISAKSON: Col. Gadhafi is probably watching this broadcast in his tent in Libya right now. We have a very small world. And, as Friedman said, the Earth is flat.

If he doesn’t think his leaving is a goal of ours, then he’s going to feel more emboldened. I don’t think you take anything off the table.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And — and, Sen. Reed, what about the scenario if Col. Gadhafi doesn’t go?

SEN. JACK REED: Well, if he doesn’t go, I think his position deteriorates continuously, given all of the pressure against him, militarily and diplomatically.

So, his scope of control diminishes. And I think he also invites internal opposition that is probably just below the surface. So, you know, I — my sense, his days are numbered. I think the most efficacious way to get him to leave is through some type of political and diplomatic solution quickly.

But, ultimately, I think he’s fighting not just the people of Libya. He’s fighting history. And I think he will lose. And I think at a point where he departs or he’s so diminished, if there is a need for additional forces, that’s where our European allies have the capabilities, our NATO allies, and the incentives to go in and provide additional power.

But as the president made clear, I don’t think this is the proper role or the necessary role for American ground forces, certainly.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Sen. Reed, Sen. Isakson, gentlemen, thank you both.

SEN. JACK REED: Thank you.

SEN. JOHNNY ISAKSON: Thank you, Judy.