The Hillary-Gates Axis in Action

April 1st, 2011

I thought that this interaction between Bob Gates and Hillary on Meet the Press this week was particularly interesting. Gates has been a reluctant warrior on Libya and he gave an honest answer to David Gregory on whether he thought that what happened in Libya was in our vital interest. Gates said that he didn’t believe that it was, but that it was in our allies interest.

David Gregory highlighted that comment, and Hillary, understanding that this was going to be the headline of the interview interjected:

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.

Bob Gates and Hillary’s alliance has been well documented and watching the video made me think that this policy is was no doubt significantly effected by the push and pull of these two key advisers. In fact, it might not be a stretch to say that the policy is a mix of Gates’  (George HW Bush style) political realism and focus on coalition building and the Hillary/Samantha Power/Susan Rice cohort (shaped by the Clinton Administration’s failure to intervene in Rwanda, and later, by its successful intervention in Bosnia).

The Obama Administration has tried to emulate George HW Bush’s political realism and focus on coalition building throughout their Administration, but as the New York Times reported, Clinton and Gates found themselves on opposite sides of this issue during internal deliberations. Hillary’s side won the day, but (perhaps in a nod to Gates and other advisors’ reticence),

The president had a caveat…The American involvement in military action in Libya should be limited — no ground troops — and finite. “Days, not weeks,” a senior White House official recalled him saying.

Tom Ricks seemed to take those reports at face value. Later on Meet the Press, Bob Woodward mentioned that there was a possibility that military advisers at some future juncture might argue for a much larger land war. Ricks said

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.

At least at this point, it looks like Ricks was right. On Capitol Hill today, Gates basically said that he would rather resign than put US military boots on the ground in Libya and that we shouldn’t be involved in training the rebel military, arguing that there are many other countries that could do that.

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