As the war in Libya moves into its second week, tag-team Sunday talk show appearances by the Secretary of Defense and the Secretary of State suggest the Obama administration remains divided over the fundamental question of whether the war is in the United States' national interest.
On NBC's "Meet the Press," Gates was asked, "Is Libya in our vital interest as a country?" He answered, "No, I don't think it's a vital interest for the U.S., but we clearly have interests there, and it's a part of the region which is a vital interest for the U.S." Gates' statement wasn't an entirely convincing rationale for a major military commitment, and moderator David Gregory responded by saying, "I think a lot of people would hear that and say well, that's quite striking -- not in our vital interests and yet we're committing military resources."
At that moment, Clinton jumped in to offer an extended justification for going to war. "Did Libya attack us?" she asked. "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?"
At that point, Clinton suggested that the U.S. went to war to repay NATO allies for support in Afghanistan. "We asked our NATO allies to go into Afghanistan with us ten years ago," she said. "They have been there, and a lot of them have been there despite the fact that they were not attacked. The attack came on us…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…"
Earlier, Clinton claimed that American intervention in Libya "prevented a great humanitarian disaster." If there had been no intervention, and Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi had "massacred tens of thousands of people," Clinton said, then critics would have asked why the President of the United States didn't stop it. Clinton conceded that it is difficult to prove that such a massacre would have actually occurred.
Gates said nothing further about the justification for war. He spoke more extensively on progress in the war, saying the no-fly zone has been successfully established and "we've also been successful on the humanitarian side."