Filipino activists burn a mock U.S. flag during a rally in Manila, Philippines, on Monday, March 21, 2011. The group is condemning the bombings against Libya by the United States, Europe and other countries. (AP Photo/Aaron Favila), a photo by Pan-African News Wire File Photos on Flickr.
THE WEEKEND INTERVIEW
MARCH 27, 2011.Libya Isn't 'About Regime Change'
Defense Secretary Robert Gates on why he regrets some recent remarks at West Point
By BRET STEPHENS
ABOARD THE NATIONAL AIRBORNE OPERATIONS CENTER—Robert Gates is a compact and unassuming man, but a U.S. Secretary of Defense does not travel in compact or unassuming ways. The National Airborne Operations Center, a.k.a. the "doomsday plane," is a giant, windowless fortress of an aircraft built during the Cold War and designed to survive a nuclear war. In just five days the 67-year-old Secretary has flown it to St. Petersburg, Moscow, Cairo, Tel Aviv (with a stop in Ramallah) and Amman, and held parleys with two presidents, three prime ministers, three ministers of defense and a king.
By the time it's my turn to step into the plane's conference room, Mr. Gates, tieless and in blue jeans, looks bushed. He has just wrapped up a nearly two-hour phone call on Libya with President Obama and the National Security Council. NATO is about to assume primary responsibility for enforcing the no-fly zone. Benghazi has been saved by Western intervention but it's far from clear whether other besieged cities will have equal luck.
I begin by asking Mr. Gates the same question House Speaker John Boehner recently put to Mr. Obama: Is it acceptable for Moammar Gadhafi to remain in power after the military mission concludes?
"This mission was never about regime change," Mr. Gates says. "Certainly it was not one of the military objectives." He recites the mandate of U.N. Security Council resolutions—to establish a no-fly zone and protect civilians—and concludes: "I think we've come pretty close to accomplishing those objectives."
Does that mean "Mission Accomplished"? Even as we spoke, the besieged Libyan city of Misurata was without water and electricity and running low on food and medicine. Yet Mr. Gates is sanguine, though perhaps less about the outcome for Libya than for the U.S. The imposition of the no-fly zone, he says proudly, was "a textbook case."
He appears even more pleased by the benefits to the Pentagon of the transition to NATO control: "The resources that we're going to commit to it are, I think, almost certainly going to diminish," he says, describing a U.S. support role that includes "electronic warfare" and "tanking fighters [aerial refueling] from other countries."
But where does all this leave the Libyan people? Twice Mr. Gates stresses that "at the end of the day this needs to be settled by the Libyans themselves," adding that "I don't think we ever had illusions about the ability to reverse the gains [Gadhafi had made] on the ground, other than stopping him from doing more and stopping him from slaughtering civilians." But he also says that if Gadhafi "were to send a big column toward Benghazi there would be the authority to take it out." The suggestion here is that NATO will not do very much to help the rebels to win, but it will backstop them to keep them from losing.
It's hard to deny the virtues of this approach: It does not overcommit the West, either militarily or financially; it stems the bloodletting even if it doesn't halt it; and it asks the Libyans to win their own freedom. But it's equally difficult to deny its drawbacks, not the least of which is that the longer Gadhafi hangs on to power the longer the crisis will roil Western politics and consume Western resources.
Here again Mr. Gates seems fairly optimistic. "The idea that [Gadhafi] needs to go . . . goes without saying," he says. "But how long it takes, how it comes about, remains to be seen. Whether elements of the army decide to go to the other side, as some small elements have, whether the family cracks—who knows how this is going to play out."
He is less persuasive when he starts naming the various nonmilitary tools, such as economic sanctions and indictments from the International Criminal Court, that the West could use to bring further pressure on Gadhafi. Saddam Hussein survived a dozen years under sanctions and a no-fly zone, and Sudan's Omar Bashir has more or less laughed off the ICC indictments against him for genocide.
A larger consideration for Mr. Gates is how the crisis in Libya fits into American interests. "There are American national security interests and American vital interests where, in my view, we need to act decisively and if necessary act unilaterally," he says. "This is not one of them."
Then again, neither does Mr. Gates think that the crisis in Libya amounts to little more than a strictly humanitarian tragedy, on a par with, say, last year's earthquake in Haiti. "It is a concern of ours if more than a million Egyptians in Libya decide they have to immigrate home. It is a concern if civil war contributes to destabilization in either Tunisia or Egypt." Libya, he concludes, "is not a vital national interest of the United States. But it is an interest."
Mention of Egypt turns the interview to the subject of the broader changes taking place throughout the Middle East. Mr. Gates call them "tectonic . . . frozen for 60 years and now all of a sudden they're all moving." His counsel is to deal with countries as they are and situations as they come—"our reaction in Libya will be very different than our reaction in Tunisia or in Egypt or Bahrain"—but he also sees lessons.
"Maybe the Syrians can take a lesson out of what happened in Egypt, where the army stood aside and let the people demonstrate," he says when I ask what he makes of the growing domestic opposition to the regime of Bashar Assad. But as for whether he would favor regime change in Damascus, he strikes a more cautious note: "No, I'm not going to go that far."
Mr. Gates also rejects the view that the ultimate winner from the upheavals throughout the Middle East is Iran. He notes the "very stark" contrast between the "repression of any dissent, any protest, compared with what is going on in any number of other countries in the region." Over the longer term, he says, "this is a hugely negative message in terms of Iran and what Iran is trying to do."
Still, Mr. Gates awards the Biggest Loser trophy to al Qaeda, which he believes is "being rendered irrelevant, at least in a political sense." Al Qaeda's basic political pitch, and the source of its popular appeal, rests on the idea that the only way of replacing corrupt Muslim governments with better ones is through violence. Now, the examples of Tunisia, Egypt, Jordan and elsewhere "show that these are countries that are tolerating demonstrations." In that sort of atmosphere, Mr. Gates seems to think, the appeal of the bullet or bomb is bound to wane, while the appeal of the ballot box will grow.
More Gates optimism. Is it justified? Al Qaeda has never lacked for excuses, or recruits, to mount terrorist attacks, whether against despotisms or democracies. In Egypt, last week's referendum on a package of constitutional reforms that pave the way toward early parliamentary and presidential elections was a huge win for the Muslim Brotherhood, which stands to gain from going to the polls before its secular opponents can organize. The Iranian "political model" may be out of vogue on the Arab street, but that doesn't mean that all of Tehran's regional ventures—including support for Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in Lebanon—are unsuccessful or unpopular.
As our interview nears its end, I turn to a speech Mr. Gates gave last month to the cadets at West Point. In widely quoted remarks, he said that "Any future defense secretary who advises the president to again send a big American land army into Asia or into the Middle East or Africa should 'have his head examined,' as Gen. MacArthur so delicately put it." I ask him whether that line should be taken to suggest that the United States should never have entered the wars it is fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"To tell you the truth, I wish I hadn't even had that sentence in the speech," he confesses. "I should have taken it out because it was a distraction from the larger message in the speech, which was the importance of the flexibility of the American military to deal with a range of threats."
Mr. Gates clearly seems pained by the subject and eager to clear the record. "I'm the guy who not only increased the end strength of the Army and the Marine Corps, but pressed for the increase in the number of troops in Afghanistan. I totally believe in the mission that we're in in Afghanistan. And so, you know, I was really dismayed to see that what I had said was interpreted as questioning the mission in Afghanistan, because I absolutely do not. I totally believe in it."
Again, Mr. Gates circles back to his point: "I believe we have a winning strategy. So I am totally committed in that respect. And just to repeat, I was just really dismayed that what I said was misinterpreted that way."
Mr. Gates has made it clear that his tenure as secretary will end this year, and his trip last week—particularly in St. Petersburg, where he addressed naval officers and reminisced about the Cold War—had a wistful, valedictory quality. It seems appropriate to ask him to define his legacy.
"I have a feeling I'm going to get asked this question a lot," Mr. Gates says, laughing.
His answer comes in two parts. "When I took this job," he says, everybody—meaning journalists, politicians and so on—had said I would be judged on the outcome in Iraq, and I testified my agenda in this job is Iraq, Iraq, Iraq. And so I think that the partnership with [General] Dave Petraeus and having Iraq be the place it is—that'll be one of the principal evaluations that I think are made of my time in office."
Then he comes to the second part: "The thing that would mean the most to me when I leave this job is if those kids in uniform remember they had a secretary of defense who, from the first day, they knew had their back."
Mr. Stephens writes the Journal's Global View column.