MS. IFILL: The Libya dilemma, we look at the military, diplomatic, and political complications of what no one wants to call a war, tonight on “Washington Week.”
SENATOR BARACK OBAMA: No amount of American lives can resolve the political disagreement that lies at the heart of someone else’s civil war.
MS. IFILL: That was candidate Obama, in 2007.
PRESIDENT OBAMA: Because of the extraordinary capabilities and valor of our men and women in uniform, we have already saved lives.
MS. IFILL: And that was President Obama this week as bombs were falling in Libya. But the definition of victory remains unclear.
SECRETARY OF DEFENSE ROBERT GATES: I think there are any number of possible outcomes here and no one’s in a position to predict them.
DENIS MCDONOUGH, DEPUTY NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISOR: We didn’t set out to do regime change here. We set out, as I said, to do a very targeted mission.
MS. IFILL: And now NATO steps in.
NATO SECRETARY GENERAL ANDERS FOGH RASMUSSEN: We have taken on responsibility for the no-fly zone, while the coalition still continues its activities.
MS. IFILL: But does Gadhafi stay or does he go? Will Congress go along with the plan? And what dominoes are set to fall next? Covering the story this week, Helene Cooper of the “New York Times,” Doyle McManus of the “Los Angeles Times,” Gloria Borger of CNN, and John Dickerson of “Slate” Magazine and CBS News.
ANNOUNCER: Award-winning reporting and analysis, covering history as it happens, live from our nation’s capital, this is “Washington Week” with Gwen Ifill produced in association with “National Journal.”
ANNOUNCER: Once again, live from Washington, moderator Gwen Ifill.
MS. IFILL: Good evening. Almost exactly one week after the coalition assault on Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi’s forces began, we sit here tonight with more questions than answers. I asked White House Deputy National Security Adviser Denis McDonough this week what Americans should expect.
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?
MR. MCDONOUGH: Well, we’re not talking about an exit strategy. As I said, the president defined it very clearly the other night on terms of our initial efforts in this undertaking.
We carved out a space where we’ll 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.
MS. IFILL: And yet, Gadhafi is still in power, even as NATO is leading the mission and as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton conceded last night, the end is not yet in sight.
SECRETARY OF STATE HILLARY CLINTON: This operation has already saved many lives, but the danger is far from over. As long as the Gadhafi regime threatens its people and defies the United Nations, we must remain vigilant and focused.
MS. IFILL: We now expect to hear from President Obama in a national address Monday night. But how significant is it that it was the secretary of state, not the secretary of defense, not the president, the commander in chief, who was tasked with making that point yesterday, Helene?
MS. COOPER: Well, I think a lot of this speaks to sort of the ambivalence that the Obama administration has had about the war. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was one of the people who actually pushed for the intervention. I think you showed Secretary of Defense Robert Gates who has for weeks now been saying, “look, we’re already in two wars in Iraq and in Afghanistan. We need to be careful here about defining the mission.” He was very, very cautious. So I think part of the reason you saw Secretary of State Hillary Clinton out there is because after the Arab League voted to invite this no-fly zone and invite this assault, she sort of was the one who was out there hearing from all of these diplomats and all of these different countries – the French, the British – who were saying the United States has to lead on this. And so she’s sort of the first port of call for the rest of the world.
MS. IFILL: Secretary Clinton was also the one ho said before, I think, the president did that Gadhafi should go. But yet they say regime change is not the order of the day, is not the goal here. How do these two things comport, Doyle?
MR. MCMANUS: Well, they do and they don’t and that’s why this all seems so unclear. The problem, Gwen, is that there’re actually two halves to the administration’s policy and the administration is pretending that there’s not a connection between the two, but there is, okay?
Half number one is the UN sanctioned mission to establish a no-fly zone and to protect the Libyan people. And that’s the one when you have administration spokesmen saying the policy is very clear. That’s the one they’re talking about.
The second half of the policy, which you might call the extralegal half, is that it’s the national purpose of the Obama administration to overthrow Moammar Gadhafi, but you can’t say that at the UN because that’s not allowed. They are pushing the envelope on a lot of the bombing of command and control centers and Libyan units to increase the possibility that as kind of a happy side effect of the UN mission, Gadhafi might be toppled, but they’re not allowed to make the connection. And that’s why when you ask a question that has the word “end game” in it, you get kind of a blank look.
MS. BORGER: Well, is this a problem just that the president came out and said Gadhafi must go as he said Mubarak must go, did he just sort of jump the gun here and then now they have to kind of figure out a way to –
MS. IFILL: Hope that he goes without actually saying that’s the policy.
MS. BORGER: – right and to make both policies sort of mesh when they don’t?
MS. COOPER: I think saying that Moammar Gadhafi had to go certainly put President Obama in a box. Because once he said that, once he’s established that as the political end game that he’s seeking, he’s sort of – when he then go into military assaults, you’re looking at those two things. I was speaking with some people in the Pentagon earlier this week and they were adamant that they define the military mission of the United States as protecting the population, as taking out these air defenses and they kept saying, “our military mission is not to get rid of Moammar Gadhafi.” And so that’s when you see Doyle talking about these two halves here, that’s partly why you have – this is kind of schizophrenic –
MR. MCMANUS: Exactly. And when we go talk to people at the State Department and say, “well, what happens if Gadhafi stays in power,” one of the responses you get is, “that’s not part of the plan.”
MS. BORGER: So is it a success? If Gadhafi stays in power
MS. IFILL: What’s to stop it from happening all over again?
MR. MCMANUS: No, it’s not a success. And that’s, in a sense, the worst case – not the worst case for the administration – but a tough problem for the administration is if you get a result that’s in the middle. If Gadhafi pulls his troops back, if he says, “okay, cease fire, big mistake, sorry about that,” whatever you want, and says yes, the administration is going to have a really hard time taking yes for an answer because that – the last time we had a no-fly zone that left the guy in place, the country was called Iraq and that no-fly zone lasted 12 years and I think it ended when we invaded.
MS. COOPER: But don’t forget how long these no-fly zones can go on without work. Look at Bosnia, look at Milosevic, and you look at Saddam Hussein. And that’s one of the reasons why the Obama administration pushed for a stronger resolution, which is why we’re looking at is no-drive zone, why they’re trying now to bomb tanks and ground troops – American ground – but they’re going after Libyan ground troops as well.
MR. DICKERSON: Well, let me ask about that, which is that NATO is a part of the first half of your two-half policy. They’re trying to do a hand off now. The administration is saying we’re going to hand this off to NATO. How possible is that? Americans are the first among equals, they say, in NATO. So are we really going to step back? And if we are going to step back in our role in NATO, then who’s stepping up?
MR. MCMANUS: Well, again, let’s look at the two parts. To hand off the no-fly zone, is pretty easy because once you’ve established it, that’s pretty easy to do. There will still be American surveillance planes. There’ll still be American intelligence involved, but it’s going to be run by a Canadian and that can all be – but the second half, that Helen talked about, the no-drive zone, that’s actually where the application of military power is going to start pushing – is already pushing against Moammar Gadhafi. And the United States is still in the lead in that. And they haven’t quite figured out a clean way to hand it off to anybody else. And today, the Pentagon was talking about possibly using helicopters and AC-130s, slow-flying, tactical aircrafts that get very close in. That’s going to look an awful lot like combat.
MS. IFILL: Who are the people, assuming that they can displace Moammar Gadhafi, who do they have in mind to replace Moammar Gadhafi?
MS. COOPER: That is the five bazillion dollar question because one of the things that John Brennan, the White House terrorism advisor is most worried about is that we don’t really know who these Libyan rebels are. You saw – and this could well have been an attempt by al Qaeda in the Maghreb to sort of hijack this democracy protest – but they put out a statement, a week ago, saying how much they were with the Libyan rebels –
MS. IFILL: Who put out the statement?
MS. COOPER: Al Qaeda in the Maghreb. So this is – and a lot of these people are believed to have those sorts of ties. Nobody knows right now, but that’s something that people are very worried about.
MS. BORGER: Can I get back to this notion of us being in the back seat? Because, first of all, it’s hard for people to believe that when the United States is part of something, we’re never in the back seat, right? But let’s just assume that we are and that this is an unwieldy coalition. How do you get the clarity of mission that Congress wants or that we’re talking about here when you have this kind of huge coalition. Do we just have to learn to accept more ambiguity in the new world order, do you think, or not?
MR. MCMANUS: Yes, probably. Look, for a while the United States is going to look very much in the lead of this. The administration has been advertising a handoff that’s happening even now on the no-fly zone, but it’s not going to really look like that for a while. But, Gloria, yes, there have been other cases – Kosovo in 1999, Bosnia at various times, and yes it drives Congress crazy, drives the American public crazy because who’s in charge? A French general is leading American troops? Actually that’s happened since the revolutionary war, but never mind. And you end up with a committee of 28 different countries trying to decide the policy. It’s very aggravating.
MS. COOPER: But that’s the difference between – welcome to the return of multilateralism. During the Bush administration, he got a lot of grief about cowboy diplomacy, and he went off and unilaterally – America did things on its own. President Obama has made it a point from the time he came into office to say, “I’m going to consult with the rest of the world.” Well, when you consult with the rest of the world, it’s really, really messy.
MS. IFILL: The Bush administration insisted they were consulting. They called it “the coalition of the willing.” Now, that same coalition is called “foreign entities” by John Boehner in his letter to the president.
MS. COOPER: Absolutely.
MR. MCMANUS: Democrats do tend to care more about getting the UN Security Council or NATO, the traditional institutions. So, yes, there is a difference there, where the Bush administration did consult with other countries, they were happy to get as many volunteers into Iraq and Afghanistan as they could, but there was no question who was in charge.
The other point involved here, though – and this goes to Gloria’s question, is President Obama and most of the American public don’t want to pay for every one of these police actions from here on out. And if you don’t want to pay for this thing, well, you’re going to have to let somebody else in the room when it’s decided on. And if we don’t want to pay for the one in the future, we are just going to have to get used to it.
MS. BORGER: So if we’re not in charge, we don’t call the shots. And if we’re not paying for it, we can’t call this –
MS. IFILL: I wouldn’t go that far.
MS. BORGER: That’s what I’m asking.
MS. COOPER: This whole notion of us not being in charge, I think is not – I think that’s a bit overstated.
MS. BORGER: So we are?
MS. COOPER: Of course we’re in charge. From the time we started, President Obama got out there and said – and announced the military assault and said, “we’re not going to be doing much” and blah, blah, blah. And it was American war ships. And it was American cruise missiles – 160, how many did the British send? The reality is the Americans – we are in charge. And even after this handover, there’re things that the American military can do that nobody else can do.
MS. IFILL: Well, we move on to the second part of this, because there’s – we’re still going to be talking about Libya, but the political half of it, because as the administration has worked to come up with a consistent message on the world stage, it’s also encountered predictable political pushback at home. Either the president moved too quickly or too slowly or too unilaterally, or was too dependent on international organizations and foreign nations, like we talked about. Speaker of the House John Boehner greeted the president with a long critique upon his return from a Latin America trip this week. “Because of the conflicting messages from the administration and our coalition partners,” Boehner wrote in a letter delivered to Air Force One, “there is a lack of clarity over the objectives of this mission, what our national security interests are, and how it fits into our overarching policy for the Middle East.” So politically, was this entire exercise just fated to be a lose-lose no matter what or how it was done, it was never going to win the popularity that the president –
MR. DICKERSON: No. The president’s getting it from all sides. And some of his critics took multiple sides of the issue so they could take acts at him. The problem – the president didn’t move fast enough. Then when he did move, we went in too deep, and others said he didn’t move. But those are all the complexities of this issue. But he also made his situation worse in two important ways.
One, the president kind of dealt Congress out a little bit. He knows how this works. Members of Congress, at least the leaders, like to be consulted. And one leadership aide and a House Republican said, “it would have been nice if he consulted the congressional leaders as much as he had the Arab League.” This coalition the president put together, well he didn’t include the members of Congress. So that’s one stinging thing.
Now, this happens, of course. Congress doesn’t like it when the president acts without consulting them, but in this case Secretary of Defense Gates said this was being done on the fly and the fact that there wasn’t this consultation adds to the kind of ad hoc feeling of this. The second thing is the communications.
The president talked about the objectives but it was in and around other stuff, a little press conference here, a little sound there. And they didn’t want to do a big Oval Office address because they didn’t want this to look like America is in charge, this is like Afghanistan, this is like Iraq. The problem is, if you don’t have one of those bring everybody around to watch the TV moments, you lose that opportunity to say, “here’s exactly what we’re trying to do, here’re our goals and here’s how we’re getting it done.”
MS. IFILL: The president had a phone call, this afternoon, with a lot of members of Congress and – I don’t know if he consulted or just notified or what the distinction is that the White House sees here. Did he make any progress?
MS. BORGER: What he did was he just restated what he’s been stating, which is that the mission is very clear, that it’s limited in scope, and that
MS. IFILL: They’ve saved lives
MS. BORGER: They’ve saved lives, as Hillary Clinton said, they’ve averted a massacre. I’m told that the Republican leaders pushed back on him, asking for what’s the end game, how to we get out of this, et cetera, et cetera. And then Democrats wanted to know when you’re going to speak to the American public and we got that answer, but in the end, he didn’t give them any more than he’s already –
MS. IFILL: I have two questions for you. Is there ever, anymore, an end game that’s articulated in advance? And is there ever anymore true consultation with Congress before these things?
MS. BORGER: Well, people always say, “you ought to know how you’re going to come out before you go in. And the criticism –
MS. IFILL: They say that.
MS. BORGER: The criticism of Barack Obama that I have heard is that he spent so much time talking about the process of getting the coalition together. I mean this was no easy feat. And he does deserve an awful lot of credit for that. Getting the Arab League on board, which was clearly the tipping point here, getting the Arab League on board, getting a vote out of the UN Security Council – everybody was saying, you can never get a vote out of the UN Security Council. He focused so much on the process, the question was, okay, so you do it, let’s talk about the strategy. That’s the criticism. Now, White House pushes back on that, I would say.
MR. DICKERSON: There is, actually, an end game, as far as they say, but it’s only of this first half, to continue Doyle’s point here, which is there will be a period where the missiles stop and it will be handed over in some fashion to NATO. They will call that an end game. And a key thing to watch here is what’s the difference between what the president says in his speech, Monday night, about what it’s supposed to look like and what the allies say is really going on. Because if there’s a gap, then you start to have the notion the president’s spinning us about what’s happening, and that’s a credibility problem.
The one final thing about Congress is you do it to cover your behind, that’s why you bring Congress in. So that you can say, “look, guys, we were all in on this together. Remember –
MS. BORGER: And the trouble with NATO.
MR. DICKERSON: – and so don’t criticize me so much, we all had a big discussion about this. That’s one of the reasons you at least bring them in on the conversation.
MS. BORGER: Here’s the problem if your strategy succeeds and you stop the humanitarian crisis, then his problems begin because then the issue is, what happens with Gadhafi. And so in the –
MS. IFILL: And the questions never go away.
MS. BORGER: – well, right, particularly politically, politically.
MR. MCMANUS: One of the things that struck me as interesting, two weeks ago, before this started, was that the criticisms and the commentary didn’t break down on partisan lines. You had Democratic interventionists who said we ought to have a no-fly zone, like John Kerry, and Republicans like John McCain. Then you had both Republicans and Democrats on the other side, of let’s not go there. What’s happened since? Has this unified the Republican Party at least and made them all mad at Obama but for different reasons?
MR. DICKERSON: Yes. And they – yes and they can take all positions of this, too because –
MS. BORGER: And they have.
MR. DICKERSON: – and they have. And that’s often the case with these things because it looks confused and so you can just say it looks confused and don’t have to say, “here’s what I would have done differently.” Some say, “well, you should have moved quickly.” But then you get into the question if you move quickly and without a coalition, well, we’ve seen that movie before and that doesn’t always work out well. But it is an opportunity to have a kind of few free hits on this.
MS. BORGER: Well, and it also plays into the whole question of American exceptionalism. And Haley Barbour gave an interview in which he said that Barack Obama is making it seem like the United States is, quote, “just one of the boys.”
MS. IFILL: This was three or four days after he said he wasn’t going to criticize the president, but –
MS. BORGER: He wasn’t going to criticize the president, okay.
MS. IFILL: – whatever.
MS. BORGER: And we are getting up to 2012. And so there is this sense that the United States, if it engages in any kind of military activity, can never take a back seat. Yet, we don’t want to take a front seat because we don’t want to start a war in a Middle Eastern country. So you kind of can’t win here.
MS. COOPER: What is so striking about this is Barack Obama is being criticized for not taking the leading role at a time when – the reality is he actually is taking the front seat.
MS. COOPER: – which is why he finds himself in this position.
MR. DICKERSON: Well, that’s right. He won’t because they don’t want to look like this is Afghanistan or Iraq. But this is what’s interesting about trying to figure out Barack Obama and assess him. Because what a lot of Republicans are saying is “we haven’t seen the public moment from the president.” So this behind the scenes work that we’re all talking about, the careful diplomacy, the deciding that it’s – hey, if you’re going to move into an Arab country, you have to have a lot of other people – all of that work doesn’t happen in public, and therefore they have to make the case at the White House. And it’s easier for the Republicans to criticize.
MS. IFILL: It seems that this whole question about prerogative always shifts. We heard what the president sounded like as a candidate and the way he sounds as a president. If you’re president, you want the prerogative to do what you think is right. And if you’re Congress, you want to be part of the discussion. And never the twain is going to meet perhaps. Is there ever going to be consensus on that particular issue?
MS. BORGER: No, there probably won’t. And when you hear Hillary Clinton talk about it – she said, “look, this is a disaster, a humanitarian disaster that was averted.” They had to move quickly. Troops were moving in – Benghazi was about to fall and there could have been a massacre of thousands of people, and that in these particular moments, that’s what commanders in chief are for. They have to make these decisions. Congress, by the way, out of town, although there are telephones, but Congress out of town, and they say they did talk to members of Congress, although members of Congress will say, “we were informed. We were not consulted.”
MS. COOPER: Well, Monday night, President Obama is going to make a speech. Is this the Oval Office moment? Is this the “my fellow Americans?”
MR. DICKERSON: This is – we’ve seen these speeches from the president before, the capital B, capital S, Big Speech. And this will be about why he made the decision he did on Libya, the context of it, how he sees this in the context of presidential power. He will get at some of the issues we’ve been talking about. It won’t be about the entire change that’s going on in the Middle East, but that will be a part of it, but it will be the specific decision he made but then they will also try to fly at a higher level to try to give some kind of context to this and what we’re to make of the President Obama and the so-called “Obama doctrine.”
MS. IFILL: Did the president want to give the speech? Do we know? Or was this something that after a while, after the drum beats started – and aware that Congress was coming back to town next week, that they had to do?
MS. BORGER: Have you ever known Barack Obama to not want to give a speech? (Laughter.) He’s pretty good at giving speeches. I think it’s the timing that was really problematic because he wanted to have the NATO thing sort of solidified, right? He wanted to have everything in a row – talk to the members of Congress, get the NATO – and I don’t know if the NATO thing is going to be solidified by Monday night but presumably –
MR. DICKERSON: He’s going to claim it is, whether it is or not.
MS. BORGER: – but the thing that I think it’s so interesting – if you think back to George Bush, there was this clarity with George Bush. Some people complained about it, said that it was too simple. It was black or white.
MS. COOPER: But Obama doesn’t do clarity. He does nuance.
MS. BORGER: Obama does nuance, right. So you always – the president you elect is in reaction to the president you had. So you had a president always clear, always black and white, and then you get Barack Obama who’s all about the ambiguity and the nuance.
MS. IFILL: Final question, do we think that there’s going to have to be a vote on this? Is there a role for Congress to play?
MS. BORGER: Money.
MR. DICKERSON: That’s the money question. And what’s interesting is that depending on how long this lasts – the NATO countries that are involved now, they’re not bursting with cash. And so you may run into a situation here. Ambassador Nick Burns, former NATO ambassador said, “After a little while, these European countries are going to say “we need the U.S. to come back in because you guys have more money. You have more of this weaponry and planes, all just kind of sitting there already paid for.” So that’s probably where the biggest crunch will come for now.
MS. IFILL: Okay. Well, we’re going to be watching for all of this because I get the feeling we’re going to be talking about Libya again for – and next, Syria, Yemen for the next several weeks. Thank you all very much. The conversation has to end here, but it continues online. Check out the “Washington Week Webcast Extra” for more. That’s where we tell you the really good stuff. You can find us at pbs.org. And keep up with daily developments over at the PBS “NewsHour,” on air and online. We’ll see you right here, around the table, next week on “Washington Week.” Good night.