Deposing Gadhafi 'Is Not Part' Of Libya Mission

Defense Secretary Robert Gates had a tough needle to thread as he testified for the first time on the Libya intervention Thursday. He sought to assure lawmakers this was a necessary mission, despite having been undertaken without authorization from Congress. At the same time, he had to explain that regime change was at least not officially what the Pentagon was trying to do in Libya.

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This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer.

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And I'm Renee Montagne.

The U.S. handed over control of the allied military operation in Libya to NATO yesterday. A few hours later, Defense Secretary Robert Gates was answering questions on Capitol Hill about America's evolving role in that conflict. He told the House and Senate Armed Services Committees that the military mission does not include the overthrow of Moammar Gadhafi.

NPR's David Welna reports.

DAVID WELNA: Defense Secretary Robert Gates had a tough needle to thread as he testified for the first time on the Libya intervention. On the one hand, he sought to assure lawmakers this was a necessary mission, despite having been undertaken without authorization from Congress. On the other, Gates had to explain that regime change was at least not officially what the Pentagon was trying to do in Libya.

Secretary ROBERT GATES (Department of Defense): Deposing the Gadhafi regime, as welcome as that eventuality would be, is not part of the military mission. In my view, the removal of Colonel Gadhafi will likely be achieved over time through political and economic measures, and by his own people.

WELNA: The military strategy, Gates said, was to keep destroying as much as possible of Gadhafi's military forces to allow the Libyan opposition to eventually prevail. Gates was asked by Virginia House Republican Robert Wittman what the contingency plan would be if Gadhafi remained in power.

Sec. GATES: I think we have considered the possibility of this being a stalemate and being a drawn-out affair.

Representative ROBERT WITTMAN (Republican, Virginia): So at this point, though, there's no contingency plan if he does continue to remain in power.

Sec. GATES: Other than keeping the pressure on.

WELNA: Hawaii House Democrat Colleen Hanabusa wondered whether that might mean sending in ground forces.

Representative COLLEEN HANABUSA (Democrat, Hawaii): Do you know if there's any time in the future that there are going to be boots on the ground in Libya?

Sec. GATES: Not as long as I'm in this job.

WELNA: Gates later told the Senate Armed Services panel he wished to avoid an open-ended, large-scale American commitment in Libya.

Sec. GATES: I acknowledge that I am preoccupied with avoiding mission creep.

WELNA: In handing over control of the Libya offensive to NATO, the U.S. is also pulling back from carrying out airstrikes. That, Gates said, has been the plan from the start. But John McCain, the ranking Republican on the Senate Armed Services panel, called it a profound mistake that sends exactly the wrong signals.

Senator JOHN MCCAIN (Republican, Arizona): The fact is that your timing is exquisite. At a time when the Gadhafi forces have literally, tragically routed the anti-Gadhafi forces, that's when we announce that the United States is abdicating its leadership role and removing some of the most valuable assets that could be used to great effect.

WELNA: Many committee members wanted to know whether the ragtag opposition forces in Libya should be better armed and trained. Gates said those fighters have plenty of smaller arms, and he showed no interest in deploying any U.S. military trainers.

Sec. GATES: The truth is, in terms of providing that training, in terms of providing assistance to them, frankly there are many countries that can do that, that's not a unique capability for the United States, and as far as I'm concerned, somebody else should do that.

WELNA: Gates did say the Obama administration would welcome a vote to authorize the Libya operation by Congress. A Republican senator, South Carolina's Lindsey Graham, said holding such a vote could be a risky proposition.

Senator LINDSEY GRAHAM (Republican, South Carolina): What would happen if we rejected the authorization as a Congress? If we voted it down because we're not confident that it'll work, what kind of signal would that send?

Sec. GATES: Well, it would obviously send an extraordinarily negative signal to, to our allies. It would certainly be encouraging to Gadhafi.

WELNA: It's not clear whether Congress will actually hold a vote on authorizing a military intervention that's already well underway. More likely, Gates and other administration officials will continue to be grilled by lawmakers on what it is the U.S. is doing in Libya.

David Welna, NPR News, the Capitol.

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