March 27, 2011

Tom Ricks on Meet the Press

MR. DAVID GREGORY:  This Sunday, the allied strike against Libya stretches into a second week as the U.S. seeks to limit its role.

PRES. BARACK OBAMA:  Responsibility for this operation is being transferred from the United States to our NATO allies and partners.
(End videotape)

MR. GREGORY:  But as criticism from Congress mounts, many questions remain: What happens if Gadhafi clings to power?  What are the limits of the U.S.'s role if a civil war there gets worse?  And how does the military campaign relate to our overall strategy in the Mideast?  This morning, a special joint interview.  With us, the secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, and the secretary of Defense, Robert Gates.
Then, the president faces critics from both sides of the aisle.  Did he overstep his constitutional authority by using force without consulting Congress?  My exclusive interview this morning with the ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Republican from Indiana Senator Richard Lugar.
Finally, analysis of the administration's handling of the crisis in Libya.  As our fragile economic recovery continues and our military is stretched thin by two other wars, did the president make the case to the American people that the intervention in Libya is worth the cost and the risk?  And how will it all affect his agenda as well as his upcoming re-election campaign?  With us, associate editor for The Washington Post and author of the book "Obama's Wars," Bob Woodward; contributing analyst for the BBC, Ted Koppel; senior fellow for the Center for a New American Security and best-selling author Tom Ricks; and NBC News White House correspondent Savannah Guthrie.

Announcer:  From NBC News in Washington, MEET THE PRESS with David Gregory.

MR. GREGORY:  Good morning.  The president will address the nation about U.S. involvement in Libya tomorrow night in response to calls for him to clarify the U.S. mission there.  Meanwhile, day nine of U.S. and allied airstrikes in Libya as rebel forces advance and manage to take control of the strategic city of Ajdabiya in eastern Libya, a celebration by rebels there yesterday. Opposition forces also have now made their way from their stronghold city of Benghazi to the port town of Brega, overtaking Gadhafi forces there.  Both victories the clearest sign yet that the airstrikes are paving the way for rebels to advance against Gadhafi and his forces.
Let's go live to Ajdabiya, where NBC's chief foreign correspondent Richard Engel joins us this morning for the very latest.
And, Richard, what does that advance by the rebels, who are behind you in this shot, what does that say ultimately about the U.S. and the allied mission in Libya?

RICHARD ENGEL reporting:
It means that so far the allied airstrikes have allowed the rebels to advance. They've moved their front line about 50 miles forward in the last 24 hours or so.  And behind me it's clear to see why.  Western airstrikes have destroyed, by our count, at least 20 tanks and other armored vehicles just in this area alone.  The rebels came through.  I'm on the outskirts of Ajdabiya now.  They found that all Gadhafi's forces in this area have been destroyed, and now they are pushing even further west.  They are likely to get to--past Brega and get to Ras Lanuf and get to Sirt before they find the next group of Gadhafi's troops truly dug in, and again in need of Western help to push this advance, which the rebels hope will take them to Tripoli.
MR. GREGORY:  But quickly, Richard, what happens if this limited mission actually ends?  Where does it leave the rebels and their cause, and ultimately Gadhafi?

ENGEL:  It is now at a stage where the airstrikes are no longer just about defending the people of Benghazi.  We're considerably far away from Benghazi. The airstrikes have destroyed all the forces that were threatening the city. Now the airstrikes are really helping an advance by the rebels.  And if the airstrikes stop, then the rebels will no longer be able to advance and this could become a long, drawn-out stalemate.

MR. GREGORY:  In Ajdabiya in Libya, Richard Engel for us with the very latest.  Richard, thank you as always.
As part of the president's effort to more fully explain the U.S. mission and interests in Libya, the secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates sat down here with me yesterday.
Secretary Clinton, Secretary Gates, welcome back to MEET THE PRESS.  The president said this is an operation that would take days, not weeks.  We are now into the second week.  Has the mission been accomplished?

SEC'Y ROBERT GATES:  I think that the no-fly zone aspect of the mission has been accomplished.  We have not seen any of his planes fly since the mission started.  We have suppressed his air defenses.  I think we've also been successful on the humanitarian side.  We have prevented his forces from going to Benghazi, and we have taken out a good bit of his armor.  So I think we have, to a very large extent, completed the military mission in terms of getting it set up.  Now, the no-fly zone and even the humanitarian side will have to be sustained for some period of time.

MR. GREGORY:  Is Gadhafi capable of routing the rebels?

SEC'Y HILLARY CLINTON:  At this point it appears that his efforts have been stopped.  I think if you were to look at where we were just a couple of weeks ago, he was clearly on his way to Benghazi.  He was intending, by his own words, to show no mercy, to go house to house.  I think we've prevented a great humanitarian disaster, which is always hard to point to something that didn't happen, but I, I believe we did.  And now we're beginning to see, because of the good work of the, the coalition, to see his, his troops begin to turn back towards the west and to see the opposition begin to reclaim ground they had lost.

MR. GREGORY:  That said, Secretary Gates, would the U.S. supply arms to the rebels?

SEC'Y GATES:  No decision has been made about that at this point.  The, the Security Council resolution would permit it, the 2nd Resolution 1973 would permit it.  But no decisions have been made by our government about that.

MR. GREGORY:  Why?  Does this administration want to see the rebels prevail and overtake Gadhafi?

SEC'Y GATES:  I think the president's policy is that it's time for Gadhafi to go.  That's not part of our military mission, which has been very limited and very strictly defined.

MR. GREGORY:  Well, so how is that going to happen?


MR. GREGORY:  Secretary Clinton, you said this week that you thought you were picking up signals that he wanted to get out of his own accord.

SEC'Y CLINTON:  Well, David, there are many different aspects to the strategy that the international community is pursuing.  As Bob has said, the military mission has gone very well.  It only started, you know, just like eight days ago.  So it has been remarkably well-coordinated and focused, and now NATO will take command and control over it.  At the same time, we are pursuing really strict economic sanctions on him and people close to him.  We have a political effort under way.  The African Union just called for a transition to democracy.  The Arab League, the others of us who are supporting this endeavor are going to be meeting in London on Tuesday to begin to focus on how we're going to help facilitate such a transition of him leaving power.

MR. GREGORY:  Right.  But, but you said this week you thought there were indications he was looking to get out.  Is that true?

SEC'Y CLINTON:  Well, people around him--we have a lot of evidence that people around him are reaching out.  Now, so far what they've been doing is to say, "You're misunderstanding us.  You don't appreciate what we're doing.  Come and talk to us." Well, the secretary general of the United Nations has appointed a former Jordanian foreign minister as a special envoy.  He will be going to both Benghazi and Tripoli in, in the next few days so that we will provide a very clear message to Gadhafi.  But we're also sending a message to people around him, "Do you really want to be a pariah?  Do you really want to end up in the international criminal court?  Now is your time to get out of this and to help change the direction."

MR. GREGORY:  Bottom line, the president wants him to go.  But the president will not take him out himself.
SEC'Y GATES:  Certainly not militarily.

MR. GREGORY:  So it would have to be other means.


MR. GREGORY:  And...

SEC'Y GATES:  But--and as I, as I've said, you know, we have, we have things in our tool box in addition to hammers.  Secretary Clinton's just talked about a number of them.  And don't underestimate what Hillary just said, of the people around him looking at what's happening and the international view of this place, and when's the time to turn and go to the other side?  And so the...

MR. GREGORY:  Let me...

SEC'Y GATES:  I think we--one should not underestimate the possibility of the regime itself cracking.

MR. GREGORY:  I want to talk about some of the congressional criticism. Speaker of the House Boehner issued a letter with questions, some of which were deemed legitimate questions by the White House.  Here's a portion of it, I'll put it up on the screen:  "Because of the conflicting messages from the administration and our coalition partners," he wrote, "there is a lack of clarity over the objectives of this mission, what our national security interests are, how it fits into our overarching policy for the Middle East. The American people deserve answers to these questions.  And all of these concerns point to a fundamental question:  What is your benchmark for success in Libya?"

SEC'Y CLINTON:  Well, I think it's perfectly legitimate for members of Congress and the public to ask questions.  The president's going to address the nation Monday night.  A lot of these questions will be answered.  But, but I would just make a couple of points.  First, on March 1 the United States Senate passed a resolution calling for a no-fly zone.  That was a bipartisan resolution.  There were a number of people in the House, including leadership in both the Republican and Democratic Parties, who were demanding that action be taken.  The international community came together; and, in an unprecedented action, the Arab League called on the Security Council to do exactly what the Security Council ended up doing.  Now, the United States and other countries were in a position to be able to act to enforce it.  If you look at the coverage on Al Jazeera, if you listen to the statements that are being put out by the opposition in Libya, there is a great deal of appreciation for what we and others have done in order to stop Gadhafi on his mission of merciless oppression.  So this was an international effort that the United States was a part of.  I certainly believe it was within the president's constitutional authority to do so.  It is going according to the plan that the president laid out.  The United States will be transitioning to a NATO command and control. And then we will be joining with the rest of the international community.  And if you look at the region, can you imagine, David, if we were sitting here and Gadhafi had gotten to Benghazi and, in a city of 700,000 people, had massacred tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands had fled over the border, destabilizing Egypt?  Everybody would be saying why didn't the president do something?

MR. GREGORY:  Can I ask you about Boehner himself?

SEC'Y CLINTON:  These are, these are difficult choices.

MR. GREGORY:  Did Speaker Boehner raise any objections when he was briefed prior to the mission?

SEC'Y CLINTON:  Well, I know that there was a constant flow of information, both to members and staff.  And, of course, the president had a, a conference with some members in person, others, many others, including the speaker on the phone.  But we have no objection to anybody asking questions.  But I think it's important to look at the context in which this is occurring.  And the fact that we have moved so rapidly to have this kind of international action taken answers in great measure the legitimate concerns of the people of Libya. And now, of course, we're going to take it day by day.  That's what you do in a situation like this.

MR. GREGORY:  The military's stretched pretty thin.  Look at this map to show what our commitments are around the globe.  In Iraq, of course, we have 47,000 troops.  In Afghanistan, 100,000 strong, and now this additional commitment of U.S. troops, I mean, not troops, but U.S. assets in Libya.  How does the president, speaking to the nation Monday night, maintain a sense of national purpose here at a time when we're so stretched?

SEC'Y GATES:  Actually, your list was incomplete.  We have a substantial military commitment in a humanitarian assistance disaster relief in Japan, as well, largely using naval forces.  The air forces that we are using for the most part and the air forces in particular that we are using Libya are forces normally stationed in Europe in any event.  The reality is, though, beginning this week or within the next week or so, we will begin to diminish the commitment of resources that we have committed to this.  We knew the president's plan at the beginning was, we would go in heavy at first because we had the capacity to do it, in terms of suppressing air defenses and so on. But then the idea was that, over time, the coalition would assume a larger and larger proportion of the burden.  This was the conversation he had with foreign leaders when this whole thing was coming together.  And so we see our commitment of resources actually beginning to decline.

MR. GREGORY:  How long does the no-fly zone last?

SEC'Y GATES:  Well, the...

MR. GREGORY:  Weeks or longer?

SEC'Y GATES:  Once the, once the Arab--first of all, nobody knows the answer to that question.

SEC'Y CLINTON:  Mm-hmm.  Mm-hmm.

SEC'Y GATES:  But once the air defenses has been suppressed, what it takes to sustain the no-fly zone is substantially less than what it takes to establish it.

MR. GREGORY:  Let me ask this question, though, still on the military, and then I want your comment as well.  What if things don't go as planned?  What is our contingency planning?  What is the U.S. commitment if things get worse in Libya?  If Gadhafi stays?  If there's an entrenched civil war?  If it devolves into Somalia-like chaos?  What then?  What's our commitment?

SEC'Y GATES:  Well, the president has made very clear there will be no American troops on the ground in Libya.  He's, he's made that quite definite. Our air power has significantly degraded his armor capabilities, his ability to use his armor against cities like Benghazi.  We see them beginning to move back to the west, retreating.  So, you know, this eventually is going to have to be settled by the Libyans themselves, perhaps the U.N. can mediate or whatever.  But in terms of the military commitment, the president has put some very strict limitations in terms of what we are prepared to do.

MR. GREGORY:  I want to ask you, Secretary Clinton, if I can, about the rest of the region because there is so much else that's happening.  And I want to go to the map and, and go through these in turn.  First, as we look at the broader Middle East, we look at Syria.  Deadly protests, because of a government crackdown, that have been occurring over the past few days.  Is it the position of the government that we would like to see the Assad regime fall?

SEC'Y CLINTON:  What we have said is what we've said throughout this extraordinary period of transformation in North Africa and the Middle East. We want to see no violence.  We want to see peaceful protests that enables people to express their universal human rights.  And we want to see economic and political reform.  That's what we've called on in Syria, that's what we've called on other governments across the region to do.

MR. GREGORY:  What about Saudi Arabia?  We go back to the map, Secretary Gates.  The king is quite upset with the president.  The relationship has ruptured to the point that he has sent troops into Bahrain.  He would not see both of you when you were in the region.  What are we doing to fix a ruptured relationship with perhaps our most important partner in the region when it comes to oil as well as other matters?

SEC'Y GATES:  Well, first of all, I don't believe the relationship is ruptured.  We have a very strong relationship with Saudi Arabia.  I think that the Saudis see all of this turbulence in the region with some disquiet. They're very concerned about Iran.  They believe that Iran will be able to take advantage of the situation in various of these countries.  And those are their concerns, and we share some of those concerns.  But I think, I think it's a great exaggeration to say this relationship's ruptured.  I, I intend to visit the region in the near term and, and hope and intend to see the king. So I think we have a very strong relationship.  We have a very strong military to military relationship.  As you know, the Saudis just made one of the largest purchases of American weapons in, in their history.  So I think it's overdrawn.  Do we have some differences of view?  Absolutely.  But that's--friends happen--that happens between friends all the time.

MR. GREGORY:  Back to the map.  In addition to Yemen, I want to actually focus on Egypt, still the strategic cornerstone.  Yemen, of course, important, but it is in Egypt that is a strategic cornerstone of this region.  What are we doing, Secretary Clinton, at this point to try to assist the young, secular movement that wants to find a way toward leadership that may be outmanned now by the Muslim Brotherhood and Mubarak's own party?

SEC'Y CLINTON:  Well, David, first, we have historically done quite a bit in reaching out to the very young people you're referring to.  When I was just in Egypt, I met with a number of those who had been leaders of the activities in Tahrir Square and that were hoping to translate that protest into political action.  A lot of them had been in American government-sponsored programs, they'd been on visitation programs to the United States.  And we are continuing to reach out and work with them and to try to provide support to them.  It is hard moving from being in the forefront of a movement to being part of a political process.  It's hard in any country, but we're going to stand with them and make sure that, at least in so far as we're able to, they get the support they need.  At the same time, though, we are also working with the interim government in Egypt.  Both Bob and I, when we were recently in Egypt, met with government officials and met with the military officials who are, for the time being, running the government.  We want to assist them on the economic reform efforts that they're undertaking.  Now, ultimately, this is up to the Egyptians.  They're going to have to make these decisions.  But we've offered our advice, and we're offering aid where appropriate.

MR. GREGORY:  Secretary Gates, is Libya in our vital interest as a country?

SEC'Y 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 a vital interest for the United States.

MR. GREGORY:  I think a lot of people would hear that and way, well, that's quite striking.  Not in our vital interest, and yet we're committing military resources to it.

SEC'Y CLINTON:  Well, but, but, but then it wouldn't be fair as to what Bob just said.  I mean, did Libya attack us?  No.  They did not attack us.  Do they have a very critical role in this region and do they neighbor two countries--you just mentioned one, Egypt, the other Tunisia--that are going through these extraordinary transformations and cannot afford to be destabilized by conflict on their borders?  Yes.  Do they have a major influence on what goes on in Europe because of everything from oil to immigration?
And, you know, David, that raises a, a very important point.  Because you showed on the map just a minute ago Afghanistan.  You know, we asked our allies, our NATO allies, to go into Afghanistan with us 10 years ago.  They have been there, and a lot of them have been there despite the fact they were not attacked.  The attack came on us as we all tragically remember.  They stuck with us.
When it comes to Libya, we started hearing from the UK, France, Italy, other of our NATO allies.  This was in their vital national interest.  The UK and France were the ones who went to the Security Council and said, "We have to act because otherwise we're seeing a really violent upheaval with a man who has a history of unpredictable violent acts right on our doorstep." So, you know, let, let's be fair here.  They didn't attack us, but what they were doing and Gadhafi's history and the potential for the disruption and instability was very much in our interests, as Bob said, and seen by our European friends and our Arab partners as very vital to their interests.

MR. GREGORY:  Before you go, Secretary Clinton, I want to change the topic. A dear friend and supporter of yours, Geraldine Ferraro has passed away, unfortunately .  And she was on this program back in 1984, when she was named onto the ticket to the presidency with Walter Mondale.  And the first woman, of course.  And she was asked a question by Marvin Kalb, at the time, and I want to show you that exchange and get you to react to it.

(Videotape, October 14, 1984)

MR. MARVIN KALB:  Ms. Ferraro, could you push the nuclear button?

MS. GERALDINE FERRARO:  I can do whatever is necessary in order to protect the security of this country.

MR. KALB:  Including that?

MS. FERRARO:  Yeah.  Even if they're politically unpopular.

MR. KALB:  And if you weren't a woman, do you think you'd have been selected?

MS. FERRARO:  That's a, that's a double-edged sword so that, I don't know. I, I don't know if I were, if I were not a woman if I would be judged in the same way on my candidacy, whether or not I'd be asked questions like, you know, are you strong enough to push the button, or, you know, that type.

(End videotape)

MR. GREGORY:  How times have changed.  She changed them, and you, of course, changed them, too, for women in politics.  What's your reaction to seeing that and your reaction to her death?

SEC'Y CLINTON:  It just makes me smile because she was an extraordinary pioneer.  She was a pathbreaker.  She was everything that, now commentators will say an icon, a legend.  But she was down to earth.  She was just as, as personal a friend as you could have.  She was one of my fiercest defenders and most staunch supporters.  She had a great family that she cherished and stood up for in every way.  And she went, before many women, to a political height that is very, very difficult still.  And she navigated it with great grace and grit.  And I think we owe her a lot.  And I'll certainly think about her every day.  And thanks for asking me to reflect on it briefly because she, she was a wonderful person.

MR. GREGORY:  Thank you both very much.

SEC'Y CLINTON:  Thank you.

SEC'Y GATES:  Thank you.

MR. GREGORY:  We are joined now by the ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Republican Senator Richard Lugar of Indiana. Welcome to MEET THE PRESS, Senator.

SEN. RICHARD LUGAR (R-IN):  Thank you very much.

MR. GREGORY:  You've heard from Secretary Gates and Clinton.  And I wonder, are you satisfied with the progress in Libya and with their explanation of our mission?

SEN. LUGAR:  Well, I was startled to hear Secretary Gates say that Libya was not a vital interest, that Secretary Clinton then came in with the fact that our European allies are very disturbed about the situation.  And, of course, we have justified military action as a humanitarian action to stop the shooting of civilians.  I would just start by saying, before our nation goes to war or has military action, there must be a plan, there must be objectives, the endgame, what we want to, to achieve.  And then, at least, some means as to how that's going to occur.  That has not happened as yet, and the president has said we've had success because Gadhafi would have murdered many people in Benghazi.  But the fact is that there was fighting in Benghazi because the so-called rebels, the other people that are not Gadhafi supporters, started a civil war in Libya, following civil wars that had commenced in Tunisia and Egypt.  And, and facts are that that civil war was proceeding and, in many cases, the rebels seemed to be winning, except when they got to Benghazi, or in Tripoli.  So, at this point, we then adopt a no-fly zone with the thought of knocking out Gadhafi's aircraft.  And then the ground zone situation in which we knocked out the tanks and trucks and the other situation.
Now, having done all of that, the fact is now that the rebels, as you pointed out, in Ajdabiya and...(unintelligible)...have come back, so that on the eastern side of Libya, the cities all seem to be lined up with the rebels.  On the western side and Misrata, the Gadhafi people are trying to take that so they at least have all of that side of the country.  And, in the meanwhile, we're saying that we're going to back off of the no-fly zone or take a much less of a role there, leave that to the Europeans.  It--and it simply leaves the whole situation up for grabs in which there is hopefulness, maybe, that Gadhafi will leave or that something bad will happen to him, or, or, in fact, that somehow these persons who are the rebels who we really don't know, who have no particular government, are, are going to form something that is more friendly to us or to the Europeans.

MR. GREGORY:  Well, let me ask you to unpack that a little bit.  If it's not in our vital interest, bottom line, should we not be involved?

SEN. LUGAR:  I think there should have been a plan for what our objectives were, a debate as to why this was in our vital interest before we committed military forces to Libya.

MR. GREGORY:  It's interesting, the press secretary for the president, Jay Carney, said this was not, in fact, a war.  This was, "A time limited, scope limited, military action." Do you think that that's a bit of dancing there? And does the president, when he speaks to the nation, have to be more forthright about what we're engaged in?

SEN. LUGAR:  Well, when I had the opportunity to ask the president during this telephonic conference that Secretary Clinton has mentioned, he justified action as a humanitarian gesture, that it would have been unconscionable to stand by while Gadhafi murdered people in Benghazi.  As a result, these people were saved, and now we move backward in terms of our obligations in the situation.  An, an event no boots on the ground.  The president has reiterated that.  So this means, in essence, the Libyans are still going to have to solve their civil war.  We've pretty well knocked out Gadhafi's air force and many of his tanks, but the fact is that the country is still very divide with east and west cities...

MR. GREGORY:  And what is our commitment?  What is our commitment to that civil war?

SEN. LUGAR:  Well, I don't believe we should be engaged in the Libyan civil war.  I believe the Libyans are going to have to work that out.  The fact is that we don't have particular ties with anybody in the Libyan picture, and we will have to at least adjust to whatever that outcome may be.  But, as far as we're concerned, as Secretary Gates has said, it is not of vital interest to the United States.  American interests are not at stake, and we clearly have already done much more than our part with regard to the no-fly zone, with regard to European friends.

MR. GREGORY:  Will it require more funds from the government for this military operation?

SEN. LUGAR:  Of course.  And that's what I stated from the beginning.  There has to be objectives and a plan and an agreement that we're prepared to devote the military forces but also the money.  It makes no sense, sort of in the front room, where in Congress we are debating seemingly every day the deficits, the debt ceiling situation coming up, the huge economic problems we have; but in the back room we are spending money on a military situation in Libya.  Estimates are that about $1 billion has already been spent on an undeclared war in Libya.

MR. GREGORY:  Mm-hmm.

SEN. LUGAR:  Some would say only hundreds of millions, and that that will diminish in the days ahead.  But what knows how long this goes on?  And furthermore, who has really budgeted for Libya at all?  I have not really heard the administration come forward saying that we're going to have to devote these funds, folks.  And therefore something else will have to go or it simply adds to the deficit.

MR. GREGORY:  Let me ask you, finally, Senator Lugar, can the U.S. and its allies accomplish the mission that they've set out to achieve if Moammar Gadhafi remains in power?

SEN. LUGAR:  Probably not.  In large part, since we have taken the position that Moammar Gadhafi is an especially evil, bad dictator, and we have now indicated, the president said that he must go, he lacks legitimacy and so forth.  Others have made the same statement.  But if, in fact, he stays, is successful with his forces in subduing the rebels, then we are going to have to deal with Gadhafi and whatever we have there.  I think there is sort of a vague hope still, animated by Secretary Clinton, that perhaps he may be thinking about where he might go, or with his money and his family and so forth, who might accept him in the world and sort of slip out of the picture. But even if he did...

MR. GREGORY:  Mm-hmm.

SEN. LUGAR:  ...the forces that are allied with him may very well still prevail in the civil war.

MR. GREGORY:  All right.  We will leave it there.  Senator Lugar, thank you very much.

SEN. LUGAR:  Thank you.

MR. GREGORY:  And coming up, the Obama doctrine.  Is the president's handling of the conflict in Libya a sign of a new era in American foreign policy?  How will it affect his efforts to confront the deficit and create jobs back at home, as well as his re-election?  Our roundtable weighs in:  The Washington Post's Bob Woodward, the BBC's Ted Koppel, Tom Ricks from the Center for a New American Security, and NBC's White House correspondent Savannah Guthrie.

MR. GREGORY:  Coming up, analysis from our roundtable on the president's leadership on Libya.  What will he say to the American people, and what is his broader vision for the Middle East?  That's coming up next, right after this brief commercial break.
MR. GREGORY:  We are back, joined now by our roundtable:  NBC News White House correspondent Savannah Guthrie; senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security and contributing editor to Foreign Policy magazine Tom Ricks; associate editor for The Washington Post, author of "Obama's Wars" Bob Woodward, particularly relevant; and contributing analyst for the BBC, a man who doesn't need much introduction, Ted Koppel.
Welcome to all of you.
And, Ted, welcome.  A pleasure to have you here.  And I want to start with you.  We've just heard this discussion, particularly the secretary of Defense saying that this campaign in Libya is not in America's vital interest. Questions laid out by Senator Lugar and criticism.  Pretty high stakes for the president, who's about to address the nation about it all.

MR. TED KOPPEL:  Yes, and I don't think he's going to be able to answer the central question.  You asked the right question in talking about the, the national interest.  The question hasn't yet been answered as to why it is that Libya, of all countries in that region, has won the humanitarian defense sweepstakes of 2011.  We have seen many countries, both in that region and throughout the world, where civilian loss and civilian suffering has been much, much greater.  Congo for the past 12 years, we've lost about five million people.  Sudan, three million people, never any talk of military intervention.  Take a look at what's going on in the Ivory Coast today. Secretary Clinton was talking about the number of refugees that might have come out of a Gadhafi attack on Benghazi.  You've got 700,000 refugees in the Ivory Coast right now--close to a million, in fact.  Why, why Libya?  Hasn't been answered.

MR. GREGORY:  Do you think, Savannah Guthrie, that the president will make the case that in many ways this was a message being sent to the rest of the Arab world, particularly the Persian Gulf, where they'd like to see more reforms more quickly after the Saudis put troops into Bahrain, that they felt that they had to take a stand here?

MS. SAVANNAH GUTHRIE:  I think they felt they had to take a stand because, as senior aides will say to you, you have to put this in the context of the Arab Spring.  When you look at Libya, you have to be looking at what happens to--what's going on with its neighbors.  In fact, this week in South America, I asked the president point-blank, what is the national security interest of the U.S. in Libya?  And he cited Egypt, Tunisia, unrest in the region.  So the president's going to have to put it in that context.
What's so fascinating about his rhetoric, though, is while he's saying, "We need to do this, the U.S. will take this military action," you can see the subtext is clearly his own reluctance to do so.  It's not the normal commander in chief fare, "Our cause is just, our cause is righteous.  We'll see it through to the end." Instead, you hear him saying, "We'll be in and out.  It's going to be limited in duration.  We won't be the ones enforcing the no-fly zone.  It's not going to be our ships enforcing the arms embargo." So you kind of see that reluctance shot through his rhetoric.

MR. GREGORY:  Well, and, Tom Ricks, look, we began the broadcast this morning, Richard Engel's reporting on the progress of the rebels.  They're getting closer to Tripoli.  Then what?  That's the moment we leave?  Or are we going to supply the rebels?  Are we--I mean, if Gadhafi stays, can we really say this is mission accomplished?

MR. TOM RICKS:  Yes.  I think what they'll say is we gave it a chance.  All Obama is saying is give war a chance.  Not our war.  All we did was kick the door down, let the Brits and the French and the others do it.  And I think his notion is we're going to be out of there long before this is resolved.  That's the hope.  That's the best-case scenario.

MR. GREGORY:  And we don't have to stick around for the--but there is this reticence.  Bob Woodward, I want to put up the Financial Times head--this headline that caught my eye this week.  And it is, "A reticent America." "`This is a president who could still run in 2012 on the grounds that he got us out of two wars,' says Anne-Marie Slaughter," formerly of Princeton, "until last month the State Department's policy chief.  `He's not going to do things that distract us from Afghanistan.  And that's totally consistent with what I call the Obama doctrine,'" she said, "`that other countries are going to have to do more in a more diverse international order.'"

MR. BOB WOODWARD:  But, but this is war.  I mean, you, you can't extinguish our knowledge about war.  And this idea that you can have a limited video game and--it just isn't the way it is.  No one knows more about this than Tom Ricks.  And the question is, what's going on here?  And what--the larger picture is what Savannah's calling the Arab Spring.

MR. GREGORY:  Mm-hmm.

MR. WOODWARD:  I'm not sure whether it's unrest, an upheaval, whether these are revolutions.  But in a 5,000 mile area from Mauritania to Afghanistan, you have to kind of put all this together.  The president has a mammoth management problem.  There is deep unhappiness, as there should be, about do we know what's going on in these countries?  And the intelligence agencies are scrambling because they cover the leaders and not the people who are the revolutionaries or the rebels or the people involved in this upheaval.
MR. GREGORY:  And, Ted Koppel, part of the issue here, as Secretary Gates has said in a different context, we're in a dark territory here.  We don't know how things are going to turn out in Libya, in Egypt, in Yemen, in Syria, throughout the Middle East.

MR. KOPPEL:  Look, you make a couple of good points.  First of all, Syria. Remember that the current president's father, back in 1982, when he had a little rebellion on his hands in the city of Hama...

MR. GREGORY:  Wiped them out.

MR. KOPPEL:  ...wiped them out.  Eighty, eighty...

MR. WOODWARD:  Ten thousand people.

MR. KOPPEL:  Eighty thousand people, Bob.  Eighty thousand people were killed in Hama.  What do we know about the rebels in Libya?  One of the few things we know about them is that there was from that region of Libya a disproportionately high number of young men who joined al-Qaeda in Iraq.  Are these the folks that we want to associate ourselves with?  We know for a fact that Gadhafi is a bad guy, but we know very little about the people who seek to replace him.

MR. GREGORY:  Tom, do you share that concern?  Is that a central question here?

MR. RICKS:  I think it is a concern.  Are we turning Libya over to Islamic extremists?  But I don't think that all Islamic extremists are necessarily our enemy.  What we're at war with is violent Islamic extremists who want to attack the United States.  I think what you're seeing now is something very different, which is some of those Islamic extremists are cheering the United States.  An F-15 went down over eastern Libya, and one of the crew, of the two-member crew, was embraced by the crowd.  They wanted to shake his hand. They lined up to shake his hand.  It astonished me to think that we are bombing an Arab state, and the people on the ground are cheering for that.

MR. GREGORY:  There is a--one of the challenges, it seems to me, Savannah, for the president is to articulate that we may have a new approach to foreign policy in the post-Bush era, but we are still the indispensable nation when it comes to influence, military power, economic power in that part of the world.

MS. GUTHRIE:  And there's a paradox here because it seems like the administration for a time was trying to have it both ways; on the one sense saying early on, "Well, we don't want to make this a U.S. vs. Libya dynamic. We don't want to feed into that.  The U.S. was, you know, among the last to call for Gadhafi's ouster, openly wringing its hands over the prospect of the no-fly zone for three weeks.  And then suddenly, a couple of weeks ago, about a Tuesday, seemed to have a total turn around, a change of heart once the Arab League came out and said, "We want a no-fly zone." So I think there are mixed messages coming out of the administration.  It may simply be a product of the evolution that's happening within the administration.  And you have to notice how, in this case, the president seems to have sided with kind of what some administration officials call the idealist wing of his national security aides, and not, say, the old hands like a Robert Gates, like a Joe Biden, even a Tom Donilon, his national security adviser.  And the president is obviously not happy with his set of choices.  One person told me in a meeting he called this military action in Libya a "turd sandwich," but he was quoting one of his national security aides who likes to use that term.

MR. GREGORY:  The question for both of you--I'll start with you, Ted Koppel. You spent time, in your early days as a correspondent, with Henry Kissinger.

MR. KOPPEL:  I did.

MR. GREGORY:  Who knew something about the big ideas for the world.  Is this administration getting the big ideas right in the--in the tumult of the Middle East?

MR. KOPPEL:  I don't think anyone has the big ideas right yet.  I mean, first of all, let's take a look at what happened not so many years ago--and Tom would know more about this than, than most of us.  Bob, too--Afghanistan.  We supported the mujahideen in Afghanistan when they were there to drive the Soviet Union out.  We supported them, and then found to our chagrin that after we'd supplied them with weapons, eventually those weapons were turned against us.  One of the men fighting with the mujahideen was a fellow by the name of Osama bin Laden.  We have no idea what these Libyan rebels are going to end up doing, whom they're going to end up supporting, and whether they're going to be good Islamic extremists or bad Islamic extremists.

MR. GREGORY:  Let me pick up with Bob Woodward right after the break.  I want to get a break in here.  I want to talk more about the endgame, but also the political implications of all this.  More with our roundtable right after this.
MR. GREGORY:  We are back with our roundtable.  Bob Woodward, the big ideas.

MR. WOODWARD:  Well, first of all, it's political survival for Obama.  There is next...

MR. GREGORY:  That's the big idea.

MR. WOODWARD:  Yeah.  That is the big idea.  And Libya's a hard case.  It's one of these 51-49 cases.  So he's sitting here thinking, "What do I have to worry about?" And he's thinking about next year when he's running for re-election.  He can't get that out of his mind, of course.  And I don't think this is the reason he did it, but it's in his mind.  And he needs to be two things to run against a Republican.  He needs to make sure the country's safe, as safe as it's been, no more attacks, he needs to be tough.  And so he has essentially adopted the tough line for the moment.  But to use--launder Savannah's term, this is not just a t-sandwich, this is--there are sandwiches like this all over, and they realize that.  He, I mean, let's get--go right to it, this is Obama's 9/11.  Not Libya, but the whole thing.  The uprising, the upheaval, the revolution.  If he manages it well, keeps the country safe, and is tough and determined and focused, this is a big win for him next year.

MR. GREGORY:  Ted Koppel, what about the Republican opposition?  I mean, is there, is it principled here?  Or is it much more feckless and inconsistent? Because the--many of them wanted a no-fly zone, then said it was too little, too late.  Then said, as Newt Gingrich said, "Well, no, you shouldn't have intervened at all." They either sound inconsistent or a lot more like President Bush, who became quite unpopular within Republican circles and the country at large on the war.

MR. KOPPEL:  I don't think you're hearing very much detail from any of the putative Republican candidates for president for good reason.  They don't know any more than the rest of us know how this thing is going to turn out.  And, at the moment, they have the luxury of being able to sit back and let things develop before they come out and actually take a, a hard position.

MR. GREGORY:  It's interesting, Savannah, the State of the Union was not that long ago.  Susan Page in the USA Today makes a very interesting point.  I'll put it up on the screen.  "In a sign of how quickly things have changed," she writes, "consider this:  Obama's State of the Union speech didn't mention Egypt - then ruled by Mubarak, a U.S. ally for decades who has since been ousted - or refer to the safety concerns over nuclear power that are sparking headlines around the world.  There wasn't a word about Libya or collective-bargaining rights, issues now front and center." What he wanted to be doing is talking about jobs and cutting the deficit and not the fact that the Middle East is completely out of control.

MS. GUTHRIE:  Right.  And, and you see administration aides trying to stick to that schedule.  I mean, even the fact that he continued with the Latin American trip last week.  They're just defying world events to take them off the, the agenda they want to set.  And they're still doing some of their--the education initiatives, economic initiatives.  So they're trying to stick to it.  But they can't dictate, of course, world events.  And the fact of the matter is, the president is spending most of his time these days on these national security issues.

MR. GREGORY:  You actually, Tom, I--you were a little bit more sanguine about this, analytically, it seems to me.  And you said off camera, there is a natural flow to Libya from the president's Cairo speech where he tried to refashion America's image in the rest of the world.

MR. RICKS:  Yeah.  They--last week the White House was talking about Srebrenica, the slaughter in former Yugoslavia.  This--if they had stood back, as Hillary Clinton said, said to you, if they'd just let that happen, this would've been an enormous blot on the presidency, worse than Srebrenica because the president would've been seen as partly encouraging it.  The U.S. military is very unhappy with this.  A lot of people in the military read my blog, and almost every single comment posted on the blog from military people has been questioning this.  They really hate it.  They're scared by it. Especially when they hear terms like "limited war." That evokes Lyndon Johnson going into Vietnam.  On the other hand, I would say this is very much in the American military tradition.  What the American military has done through most of its history is this sort of gunboat action.  This is really just Obama going back to an Eisenhower-like approach of not trying to get stuck in something, but try to affect it.

MR. GREGORY:  But, Bob, I mean, you chronicled this throughout the Bush years and now the Obama years.  The point that you had made before, which is what if things don't go as planned?  Isn't the legacy of Iraq to question the government's best-case scenarios?

MR. WOODWARD:  And I've heard Obama say things like, "War is hell.  It is managing chaos." He clearly does not like war.  In his Nobel acceptance speech, he said, "War is never glorious.  It's a manifestation of human folly." And here he is going to war.  I think he felt the pressure.  And the, the question is, is he going to be able to extract the U.S. in a way that's honorable and limited?  And, as you know, Tom, the military people say you, you're going to get a general in there, whether it's a NATO general or a U.S. general, it's going to be like General McChrystal in Afghanistan, and say, "Well, I can solve this problem.  How about 20,000 troops or 30,000 troops?" It's hard to find the off switch in war.

MR. GREGORY:  All right.  Let me get another break in here.  We'll come back with a few more minutes with our roundtable right after this.
MR. GREGORY:  We're back.  Just a few minutes with our, our panel.
Ted, you wanted to pick up.

MR. KOPPEL:  I did.  I just wanted to invoke the law of unintended consequences in reference to what Bob said.  Remember Somalia.  There was never a more humanitarian mission than when President George W.H. Bush, H.W. Bush, the elder Bush, when he ordered U.S. troops into Somalia to avoid the starvation of hundreds of thousands of people.  Ultimately, that led to a dead Ranger being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu.  We pulled out of Somalia just in panic; and a few weeks later, when Rwanda happened, the United States was so shell-shocked that it was unable to do anything and 800,000 people died.
MR. GREGORY:  Is the question politically, Savannah, about what's happening on the left in the Democratic Party.  I spoke to Dennis Kucinich, the congressman, as part of our midweek MEET THE PRESS Press Pass conversation, and He raised the specter of a challenge, a primary challenge for the president.  Take a look.

MR. GREGORY:  Should there be an anti-war candidate who challenges President Obama in 2012?

REP.  DENNIS KUCINICH (D-OH):  I believe it would be healthy if there was a pro-peace candidate, but not just about peace as some airy fairy notion but, but an active presence of an understanding of, of the science of human relations, and jobs for all, health care for all, education for all, retirement security.  Peace is a--is an economic issue, as we're finding out. Three trillion dollars for the war in Iraq, half a trillion dollars for the war in Afghanistan, $100 million a day spent in the intervention in Libya.
(End videotape)

MR. GREGORY:  As Bob reported in his book, there was a concern in Afghanistan about losing the left.  How much is that motivating that reluctance, that reticence in the administration now?

MS. GUTHRIE:  Well, and you can see it.  And the irony that, of course, Obama in 2008 was the anti-war candidate and for him to be the person that has brought us into a third conflict in the Middle East, I think that is why you see that anguish.  He does not want to be in these circumstances, but he feels that his hand has been forced.  And I, I think it is going to be a concern on the left.  But it--what's interesting about what you see in Congress is the objections seem to be mostly about process--"Hey, we weren't consulted"--less about substance.  And that seems to be just kind of the bipartisan grumbling over issues of the co-equal branches, the separation of power.

MR. GREGORY:  Tom, a little less than a minute here.

MR. RICKS:  I was really struck by what you had with the secretary of Defense and the secretary of State and their comments again and again saying limited war, limited interest.  There is a leash on here on the U.S. military that if they get any general getting a whiff of mission creep, they're going to yank on that leash so hard his head's going to come snapping all the way back to Washington.

MR. WOODWARD:  Yes.  And we shouldn't end without mentioning--you know, because you've got all of these powder kegs in this area--Saudi Arabia.  This is the country that matters.  This is, as you pointed out in talking to Gates and, and Clinton, there is a ruptured relationship where it's not a good one. This is a monarchy, and they are our oil pipeline.  How do we manage that? That's at the top of the list of Obama's problems.

MR. GREGORY:  Right.  Particularly in a fragile economic recovery.
Thank you all very much.  We will leave it there.
But before we go, a quick programming note.  Full coverage on NBC News and MSNBC of the president's speech tomorrow night.  Plus, be sure to watch NBC "Nightly News" Tuesday night as the president sits down for an interview with Brian Williams.  And visit our Web site weekly for our special Web only conversation we're calling, as you heard, the midweek Press Pass.  This week I'll sit down with the new chairman of the Republican National Committee, Reince Priebus.  It will be up on our Web site this Wednesday afternoon.
That is all for today.  We'll be back next week.  If it's Sunday, it's MEET THE PRESS.

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