President Obama To Clarify Mission In Libya

Guests

Ron Elving, senior Washington editor, NPR
Amb. Edward Djerejian, former ambassador to Israel for President Clinton, and to Syria for Presidents Reagan and Bush
Tom Ricks, senior fellow, Center for a New American Security

President Barack Obama will address the nation, nine days after the military campaign in Libya began, to explain the rationale for — and the goals of — military intervention. He continues to face criticism from both the left and right on Capitol Hill over what is now a NATO-lead operation.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

In Libya, the military momentum has swung back to the rebels, now reported just outside of Moammar Gadhafi's hometown of Sirte. Here in Washington, President Obama hopes to recapture some political momentum.

After criticism about lack of consultation with Congress and failure to address the American people, the president makes a nationally broadcast speech this evening.

For most of this hour, we'll fill you in on what to expect and what's at stake in Washington, in Libya and in the Middle East. In a departure from our usual practice, we're not going to take calls on this today. We want you to be our reporters tomorrow.

After you listen to NPR's Ron Elving, journalist Tom Ricks and former Ambassador Edward Djerejian today, after you listen to the president later, talk with your family, your friends your neighbors, your co-workers and report back to us on their reaction at this time tomorrow.

Later in the program, as Israel and Hamas reignite tit-for-tat strikes into and out of Gaza, Aaron David Miller joins us on the Opinion Page to talk about the Arab spring and the Israeli-Palestinian standoff.

But first, the president speaks on Libya, and we begin here in Studio 3A with NPR senior Washington editor Ron Elving. Ron, always, thanks for coming in.

RON ELVING: Good to be with you, Neal.

CONAN: And there's every reason to believe the American public is genuinely anxious about what the United States is doing in Libya and for how long.

ELVING: The country is concerned. Obviously, the Congress is concerned, although the concerns of Congress and those of the country are not necessarily the same.

We've been hearing a great deal over the last several days from Congress, which was out on a recess when this incursion began - or this intervention in Libya began. I guess incursion would imply ground troops. We should stay away from that.

When this action began, on March 19th, Congress wasn't here, and although many of them sounded off last week back in their districts and home states, they were not actually together and in their usual microphone positions to be able to voice their objections.

But now they're back, and we're hearing more and more about it, and there are going to be a number of committee hearings this week, especially on Thursday. Right now, it looks like there will be two in the House, two in the Senate, all four on Thursday unless they can work this out so as to share the witnesses they want to hear from.

So there will be a lot of formal hearings, and there will be a lot of informal reaction coming from Congress. Some of them are talking about what's going on in Libya, this particular instant case of an intervention by the United States and its allies.

Some of them are talking about it largely in terms of this president, the things they don't think the president has done right. They want more clarity. They want more goals. They want more consultation. They don't like the fact that this began while they were out of town, and they did not have a chance to vote on it.

And some of them are more concerned with the larger issue of whether or not a president really can order American resources and American armed forces into action in this way without asking for Congress to either declare war or, in some sense or another, give some sort of sign of approval.

CONAN: In the absence of a true emergency, the absence of an imminent threat to the United States.

ELVING: That is correct.

CONAN: And clearly, that was not the situation here. Of course, if they felt that strongly about, the speaker and the majority leader could have reconvened the House and the Senate.

ELVING: They could have done that. That is certainly within their power. The president can call them in if he wishes to, and they certainly can. After all, they are in charge of those two bodies.

It's also possible that there's a good deal going on here that would not have been possible for them to address even if they had called them back into order last week, dissatisfactions of a broader scale, unhappiness with the Obama administration, particularly on the issue of the budget.

There was a letter from two-thirds, almost two-thirds of the members of the Senate. It was a bipartisan letter, Republicans and Democrats, saying they really wanted the president to get more involved in these budget negotiations they're engaged in with the House.

This is a serious problem we've got, tens of billions of dollars of difference between the two chambers on this year's budget, this year's budget. We haven't even moved on to considering the budget we're supposed to be on schedule to be approving this spring.

So there are a lot of underlying tensions that are causing Congress to raise questions about this military action, besides all those legitimate points.

CONAN: And who's going to pay for it. Again, this is not scheduled for under anybody's budget.

ELVING: That is correct although we have seen the Pentagon absorb costs of smaller-scale interventions in the past, and there's some possibility that this could be largely taken care of in present appropriations. Of course, the question is: What are we talking about? Last week's use of Tomahawk missiles, cruise missiles, some overflights, or are we talking about a longer conflict in which we're involved for a much longer period of time and conceivably use other resources besides air power?

CONAN: In addition to Congress's concerns, and as you laid those out, those are specific between the president and the leadership in Congress, and indeed the rank and file in Congress, there are concerns about how the American public is taking this.

The president did make some remarks on his way out of town, on his way to Brazil, a presidential visit to Brazil and then later, elsewhere in Central and South American, but - Chile and El Salvador. But he's not - usually if American forces are going to action, the president speaks to the country from the Oval Office.

ELVING: That is typical. There is nothing necessarily normative here, but that is typical. The president usually likes to have the sense that he has rallied the country behind him before he takes this kind of an action.

This is a little bit different action, in the sense that it is not unilateral. We are doing it with a number of allies. We are doing it with U.N. approval. And those kinds of things perhaps the president wants to emphasize rather than emphasizing the rally around the stars and stripes kind of this is America against some individual enemy or some foreign enemy that has been so typical of these kinds of situations in the past.

So the concerns of the citizenry are quite real, and while in some respects they are mirrored in Congress, they're also somewhat different. When you talk to the people, what they're concerned about here is results. What are we up to? What are we doing? What kind of success are we having? How long is this going to take? Are Americans going to be engaged on the ground? Are Americans going to be killed? How long is it going to last? How much is it going to cost?

And right now, what we're getting back from the pollsters indicates that while the country has not turned against this in a clear sense, the approval level is hovering right around 50 percent or a little below. That is the poorest level of approval for a new military venture or a new military intervention of this kind that we can - well, that any of us can find in our memories.

CONAN: And by not speaking to the nation, has the president allowed his detractors to say: Wait a minute, President Obama has consulted with the Arab League and the United Nations Security Council. He hasn't bothered with the American people.

ELVING: Well, precisely. And with the president trying to make this as much of an international event as possible and not trying to hang it on the United States' process or hang it on the United States Department of Defense or our military might, the emphasis has so clearly been on the international side of this that the contrast, with him not speaking to the American people before the intervention began and not going to Congress for even, you know, a kind of cosmetic gesture of approval, stands in stark contrast.

CONAN: Yet I don't think there's a lot of doubt that, had he gone to Congress, President Obama would've gotten an approval.

ELVING: It depends on what he had asked for. In the Senate, one would think he would get a clear majority for it. In the House, I'm not so sure. This is a House that is implacably opposed to the president on virtually every issue.

So the question of whether or not this House would've given him an immediate, up or down, resounding vote of approval, as presidents have generally had in military actions in the past, I think is an open question.

CONAN: Ron, stay with us just for a few minutes, if you would.

Joining us now from studios at Rice University in Houston, Texas, Ambassador Edward Djerejian, former ambassador to Israel for President Clinton, ambassador to Syria for Presidents Reagan and George H.W. Bush, these days he's at the Baker Institute for Public Policy. And of course, Ambassador, thanks very much for being with us today.

Mr. EDWARD DJEREJIAN (Former Ambassador to Israel and Syria): My pleasure to be with you, Neal.

CONAN: And of course, there are a lot of implications for this intervention that happen outside of Washington, D.C., and indeed outside of the United States.

Mr. DJEREJIAN: Exactly. I think - first, I think in putting Libya in context, we have to remember what's happening in the broader Middle East; these spontaneous popular revolts that started in Tunisia, into Egypt. The administration is truly confronted with a historic moment in the Arab world where political change is manifest and has to deal with it.

In one way, the idea of the arc of history, what we stand for, liberty, the people reclaiming their basic rights after decades of autocracy in the Arab world, and then the administration has to differentiate how this is manifesting itself in each country.

Egypt is different. Tunisia is different. What's happening in Bahrain commands a nuanced response. And what's happening in Libya, another response because of the important differences that play in each country.

And therefore, President Obama has to - in my eyes, at least - has to weigh our national security interests against our ideals, the idea of liberty and protecting people from humanitarian disasters, and I think that's what we're seeing in the case of Libya, Neal.

He has taken a step back, as your correspondent has very accurately described, in his comments. He hasn't been up front because I think he - it's a deliberate decision on the part of the administration. After all, we are engaged in a major military presence in Iraq. President Obama is waging a very serious war in Afghanistan.

The United States, as Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has pointed out, has to be careful not to be overstretched. And therefore, this is one step back, making a clear decision on humanitarian grounds to stave off a humanitarian disaster if Gadhafi's forces really ravaged the rebels in Benghazi, for example, but at the same time doing it under the cover of the U.N. Security Council, under the Arab League and now NATO.

CONAN: And you say humanitarian intervention. And I think people do accept that. Yet clearly the goal of this is more than to protect the citizens of Benghazi. The goal here, as the president of the United States, the president of France and the prime minister of Britain have all said is that Mr. Gadhafi must go.

Mr. DJEREJIAN: Absolutely, and I think the no-fly zone decision was taken primarily, I think, for the humanitarian reasons in the first instance but also, again in my view, to level the playing field in Libya, to give the rebels a chance to be able to hopefully prevail, in eyes of the administration and most of the international community, to end the regime, Gadhafi's regime in Libya, hopefully and perhaps idealistically through a military equation on the ground where Gadhafi would have to negotiate a political transition but most likely perhaps just a crumbling of his regime.

So it's two-fold. It's idealistic, if you will, on a humanitarian basis, and it's also realpolitik in leveling the playing field between the rebels and the Gadhafi regime.

CONAN: Ron Elving, before we let you go, there's that disconnect, though, that here's our stated goal, here's our unstated goal. The president needs to resolve that tonight, don't you think?

ELVING: I'm not sure he does. I think it would be desirable for him to be able to do it, but I think that it is a somewhat deliberate ambiguity, that the president wants to say we want Gadhafi gone, but the president at the same time does not want to say: And so we will use all means at our disposal until he is.

That's a different kind of commitment. We want this, but we are not necessarily willing to commit any kind of means to achieving it.

CONAN: Ron Elving, NPR senior Washington editor, thanks very much, as always. He joined us here in Studio 3A.

We're talking with Ambassador Edward Djerejian, and when we come back, we'll also be joined by Tom Ricks at the Center for a New American Security and an expert on the U.S. Army and the military. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan.

In Libya today, NATO war planes struck government tanks on a main road along the Mediterranean coast, and a French military spokesman said fighter jets bombed a military command center south of the capital, Tripoli.

Anti-Gadhafi rebels have retaken much of the ground they lost before Western airstrikes began, just over a week ago. Those gains, though, appear eminently reversible.

Still, the resurgent rebels are reportedly on the outskirts of Moammar Gadhafi's hometown of Sirte, and as the airstrikes and patrols continue, the NATO commander in charge of the Libya operation says his mission is to protect civilians, not to provide air cover for anti-government rebels.

In about five hours, President Obama will speak on national television to make his case on Libya and to more clearly define the goals of the operation. Again, we're not taking calls on this today. We want you to be our reporters tomorrow, after you listen to the president later today, talk with your family, your friends, your neighbors and your co-workers and call us to report back on their reaction in this hour tomorrow.

Our guest is Ambassador Edward Djerejian, who served as ambassador to Israel and Syria, now founding director of the James A. Baker Institute for Public Policy at Rice University in Houston, Texas.

And Tom Ricks joins us now from his home in Maryland. He's a Pulitzer Prize-winning correspondent who writes "The Best Defense" blog for Foreign Policy magazine. And Tom, nice to have you back on the program.

Mr. TOM RICKS (Senior Fellow, Center for a New American Security): Thank you.

CONAN: And you said on "Meet the Press" yesterday that military members are flooding your inbox, voicing concerns about - they may be left holding the bag here in Libya.

Mr. RICKS: Yeah, the military is strikingly, as best I can tell, against this operation. They don't like the haziness of it, the ambiguity of it, the unstated sort of end state. What is this supposed to do?

They're much more used to seeing America put together a coalition, to see a president state the reasons as he pulls together a coalition and then America leading the military operation.

And what I'm arguing back in my blog, on foreignpolicy.com, is: Hey, you guys have talked for the last 10 years about ambiguity and learning to live with uncertain situations. This is it. This is a president who is not trying to operate unilaterally. He's operating multilaterally. He wants other countries to take the lead. This is what this guy said he was going to do.

And the other thing that sort of bothers me about the military pushback is historically, this is really what the U.S. military has done most of the time, this sort of classic, gunboat diplomacy, not 1944 charging across the plains of Europe.

CONAN: Gunboat diplomacy in terms of waving some heavy, heavy signals and saying: Let's change your behavior here.

Mr. RICKS: Yes, but not trying to go in and actually change the whole country, which is really the nature of gunboat diplomacy, sending - you know, giving them a whiff of the grapeshot, sending a message, getting a recalcitrant foreign leader to operate in a different way or to get out of the way.

CONAN: And it may work, or it may not. Obviously, a great deal is going to depend on results.

Mr. RICKS: Well, I think what's happening here is people don't seem to be listening to the president, the secretary of state and the secretary of defense when they say: This is pretty much over for us. We got the result we wanted.

As I said on "Meet the Press" yesterday, all they are saying is give war a chance. What they're trying to say is: We kicked the door down, we provided the things that only America can provide, which is going in quickly, taking out another country's air defense system without sustaining any American casualties, and now we've stepped back and said: You guys do what you want to do.

We've made it so France, Britain, Arab countries can go in and do airstrikes if they want. But we're out of here. And that was very much the message I got from Clinton and Gates, which is they are thinking of this operation already in the past tense.

CONAN: And Ambassador Djerejian, it's important to recall that in opposition to the reaction to the invasion of Iraq, this seems to be popular not just with Arab governments but in the Arab street.

Mr. DJEREJIAN: Yes. Gadhafi is not the most liked Arab leader. That's to state the obvious. But I agree with what Tom Ricks is saying in terms of the pushback he's getting on the military assessment he's hearing.

Let's look at what our interests are. I think Secretary Clinton and Secretary Gates have stated it very well. We have a very important national security interest in what is happening in Libya because of the situation on the ground, as I explained, in terms of the humanitarian issue and leveling the playing field between the rebels and Gadhafi's regime.

But beyond that, in terms of what's happening in the rest of the Arab world, to be seen - the United States to be seen as standing totally aloof from the situation in Libya would send the wrong signal throughout the Arab world. But doing it in the way I believe the president and his team are doing, one step back, reflects, I think, an intelligent assessment of what our interests are.

Secretary Gates stated yesterday, I believe, that Libya doesn't represent a vital security interest for the United States. I agree with that. But it still represents an interest. And therefore, it's important for the United States to take this role.

It played a very important role in establishing a no-fly zone with our military assets but then stepping back and letting the French and the British and the Arab League and the others take the lead.

I just came back from - about three weeks ago from a conference in Europe on the Middle East. And if you were there listening to French and British and Italian and other - the diplomats and policy-makers, they have a clear and present threat perception that if the instability in the Murgab and North Africa gets out of hand, they are going to be faced with a major refugee influx into Europe.

Whether that's a real threat or not, that is their perception. And therefore, you see people - Sarkozy and Cameron - acting very, very actively. Their interests are a bit different than ours.

CONAN: Tom Ricks, let me also ask you about, though, concerns that the goals of the United States and its coalition partners seem to be mismatched with the means. In other words, this no-fly zone and limited airstrikes may not accomplish the goal of removing Gadhafi, and there's no more than that U.N. Security Council resolution, which prevents further operations.

Mr. RICKS: Well, I have no problem with there being a discrepancy between what the United States would like to see in Libya, which is we'd like to see Gadhafi gone, and what the United States is willing to do in Libya.

We're not going to get in a ground war in Libya to get rid of Gadhafi. What we're willing - what we're saying, and I think this is the right way to operate in that part of the world, is there are several million Libyans willing to die for their country and to get rid of Gadhafi and to maybe, with hope, we hope, have a government that offers more freedom.

What can we do to enable that? And if there are some things we can do with relatively low risk, very quickly, with something that does not really amount in scope, duration and intensity to a war, why not do those things?

But it's not, you know, in for a dime, in for a dollar. This is very much a limited action. And I think Americans are not entirely comfortable with the rhetoric of limited action. The U.S. military certainly is not because it reminds them of the rhetoric of the Lyndon Johnson administration on Vietnam: gradualism, gradual escalation and so on.

I think Obama is not trying to do that. He reminds me more of Eisenhower in many ways than he does of LBJ.

CONAN: Yet some might say there are if not millions yet, many thousands willing to die for freedom in Syria and in Bahrain and in Yemen. Why Libya and not there?

Mr. RICKS: Well, you do what you can do where you can do it. I think one of the real dangers in foreign policy is to apply ironclad principles. You do need to be pragmatic. You do need to measure what you can do against the likely cost.

We don't want to get in another war in an Arab country, but if we can help some Arabs achieve freedom, I think that's a really good thing. To see Arabs cheering for an American pilot and helping him when his aircraft is downed is a wonderful thing.

I'm not sure how much longer the cheering is going to last. I think that's one very good reason to sharply limit this operation and for President Obama to get us out as quickly as he can, which I think is what he's doing.

CONAN: Ambassador Djerejian, you said, and I think this echoes what a lot of other people, particularly the administration, say: Yes, every case is different. There are nuances here. The nuances might be that the leaders in Bahrain and in Yemen are on our side. They're our friends, and Colonel Gadhafi was not, and Syria is a much tougher nut than Libya.

Mr. DJEREJIAN: Yes, Syria is a very complex issue. But there again, the immediate response to the administration is to call on the Syrian government to not use violence against its people, to take the rhetorical high ground, if you will, on that.

And you could see what others are doing, again in this case a very important player in this is the Turkish prime minister, Erdogan, who has a relationship with the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and he's urging the president to move forward on real reforms, not just talk but real reforms, to try to get out ahead of the street, if you will.

The danger, of course, has already manifested itself in Syria by the regime firing on its own people. That's always a very bad sign. But the neighbors and the Europeans and we also are very concerned about what could happen in Syria because of its location and its ethnic sectarian composition.

Syria could go asunder in the worst-case example because it is a country of -composed of Sunnis, of the small Alawite minority that reigns, of Druze, of Christians and Kurds. It could become another Lebanon if (unintelligible) Israel.

CONAN: And when you say location, you mean next door to Israel.

Mr. DJEREJIAN: And next door to Israel. And, of course, that's an important security interest for the United States and the region and the - as a whole. So, again, this idea of differentiation, I think, is a sophisticated approach of this unprecedented situation in the Middle East.

Again, one size does not fit all. And therefore, we're going to have to very carefully balance our national security interests, our foreign policy interests with our ideals - again, the street, freedom, et cetera - and play a very sophisticated game here.

It's not a game. It's really an intelligent policy that addresses each country on its own merits. For example, in Bahrain, again, a situation - the 5th Fleet is headquartered in Bahrain. Of course, we have an immediate interest not to see that country go asunder with a Shiite majority and a Sunni-Muslim monarchy ruling it.

And then, there are Saudi Arabia's interests that are very important in our national security calculations, and the commitment that Saudis made to preserve that regime in Bahrain because of their concerns over the Shiites in their own country. And Iran looms in the background as how it might exploit the situation.

So what I'm trying to say here is that if we put ourselves in a position of the decision-makers in Washington today in the Obama administration, the important thing is for the administration to act in a very nuanced manner in each country on a differentiated basis.

This is not going to appeal to those in our country who want simple answers and decisive moves in some sort of - again, I'll use the phrase - one size fits all. No. The administration has to act with a great deal of sophistication and nuance today in the Middle East.

CONAN: We're speaking with former Ambassador Edward Djerejian, who served as ambassador to Israel under President Clinton and former ambassador to Syria under Presidents Reagan and Bush, now founding director of the James Baker Institute for Public Policy at Rice University. Also with us is Tom Ricks, a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security and a blogger for Foreign Policy magazine. It's called "The Best Defense." You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And another reminder, we're departing from our usual practice. Today, we want you to listen to our guests this afternoon and then to the president tonight. Talk to your friends, your co-workers, your family, your neighbors and report back to us at this time tomorrow on their reaction to the president's speech on Libya.

Tom Ricks, I wanted to turn back to you. Sophistication and nuance are - I'm maybe slightly exaggerating by saying dirty words in American politics?

Mr. RICKS: Yeah. I think the president quite successfully is disassembling the lens that Bush and the people around President Bush used to look at the Middle East and the - even the - I'm noticing in the news media a sort of uncomfortability with this. And you see it on Jon Stewart when they talk about, you know, day three of kinetic action in Libya. You know, the kettle drums bouncing in the background. This is very different. This is the United States saying we're not going to try to run the world here.

And if people didn't think that Obama was serious about multilateral operations working with coalition partners in genuine coalitions, not the phony sort of honorary membership coalitions we had in Iraq and Afghanistan. This is a very different operation.

I actually think the guy is showing the courage of his convictions, and I agree with the ambassador. You're seeing a very sophisticated operation both diplomatically and militarily. We did this thing that only we could do, which is this sophisticated no-fly zone, a very difficult air campaign to carry out. And it was done on the fly very quickly and very effectively.

And now, we're stepping back, and this is just not something that Americans are used to seeing. I actually think it's a very good thing. We're actually seeing NATO operate in a different way, and this may - it's certainly a gamble for NATO, but I think it also might revitalize NATO.

CONAN: And, Ambassador Djerejian, is it important, too, when the Arab League takes the remarkable step of calling for international military intervention in one of its member nations for humanitarian purposes, is it important for the United States and its NATO allies to respond?

Mr. DJEREJIAN: Absolutely. And we did respond, and I think the administration waited patiently to get that type of support to, if you will, justify our going into military action in terms of the no-fly zone. That was a very important endorsement by the Arab League. And the Arab League, as you well know, Neal, is not known for its decisiveness or of its coherence of action. But, here, they did step up to the plate. They wobbled a bit after, but then, they came back. So that is an important consideration.

And then now as this is being turned over more and more to NATO next week, NATO is all ready going on the political track, and they're going to have this conference, as you know, in London on Tuesday, that is going to sort of outline what the political transition process could be. That's a big if.

And the only point I want to make here is that once you enter into this fog of war, we don't know what the outcomes are going to be. We don't know what the outcomes are going to be in any of these countries that are witnessing this incredible popular unrest.

These movements toward liberty - let's put it in that term alone - can be hijacked. They can be hijacked by new autocrats, new authoritarian regimes that come into place, be they the military, be they Islamic radicals or whoever it may be. But that is the roll of the dice in this major manifestation that we're witnessing in the Middle East.

But, but I am more confident in the long term that what is happening in the Middle East is it will not change. To me, this is the end of the real end of the postcolonial period in the Arab world. These countries got their national independence, and then, their national movements were hijacked by one coup d'etat after another, autocrats for decades. But now, the people are really asking for their basic rights, which is really the end - the true end of the postcolonial period, their basic rights.

And I don't think the clock is going to go back. We're going to have some very short-term turmoils, some bad results in certain countries, but I think that the - if you want to talk about the arc of history I think this is moving in the right direction.

CONAN: Ambassador Djerejian, we should note that on - reference to one of the things you said, the president of Syria is expected to make an address to his people in the next couple of days, but we thank you for your time in advance of President Obama's address to the United States tonight. Appreciate it.

Mr. DJEREJIAN: Thank you. It's good to be with you.

CONAN: Also our thanks to Tom Ricks of the Center for a New American Security and foreignpolicy.com. Tom, as always, thanks very much.

Mr. RICKS: You're welcome.

CONAN: And we're going to follow up on this in just a moment on the Israel-Palestinian issue. This is NPR News.

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