MR. DAVID GREGORY: This Sunday, breaking news: Attack on Libya. U.S., French and British forces target Libyan air defenses in support of rebels fighting to overthrow Libyan ruler Moammar Gadhafi. President Obama insisted the attack only followed Gadhafi's refusal to end his assault as the United Nations resolution demanded.
PRES. BARACK OBAMA: We are answering the calls of a threatened people, and we are acting in the interests of the United States and the world.
SEC'Y HILLARY CLINTON: We have every reason to fear that left unchecked, Gadhafi will commit unspeakable atrocities.
MR. GREGORY: This morning, the very latest on the military campaign, its goal and its limits, including the president's order that no U.S. ground troops be committed. With us, the president's top military adviser, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen. Then, reaction from Capitol Hill. Is Libya a threat to the United States? Is it too late for military action to make a difference? And should the president have sought congressional authority? With us, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Senator Carl Levin of Michigan; chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts; and Republican member of the Armed Services Committee, Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama. Finally, our roundtable assesses the president's leadership as he manages a crisis in the Middle East and confronts the still unfolding dangers from Japan's nuclear emergency. With us, NBC News chief foreign affairs correspondent Andrea Mitchell, NBC News chief Pentagon correspondent Jim Miklaszewski, White House correspondent for The New York Times Helene Cooper, former director of the CIA General Michael Hayden, and president of the Council of Foreign Relations Richard Haass.
Announcer: From NBC News in Washington, MEET THE PRESS with David Gregory.
MR. GREGORY: Good morning. Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi took to the airwaves this morning vowing to stay and fight, and calling the airstrikes on his country tantamount to terrorism. Anti-aircraft fire painted the skies over Tripoli overnight after allied forces launched Operation Odyssey Dawn to prop up rebel forces against the Gadhafi government. Earlier in the day the French took the lead as their war planes patrolled the skies over Libya and struck pro- Gadhafi tanks. U.S. and British forces followed by launching a volley of more than 100 cruise missiles and heavy bombing during strikes that targeted Libyan air defenses and communications facilities. The U.S. currently has at least 11 naval vessels in the Mediterranean in addition to surveillance aircraft. All of this in preparation to impose a U.N.-sanctioned no-fly zone. It is the largest military intervention since the invasion of Iraq in 2003, eight years to the day. Want to go right to NBC's chief foreign affairs correspondent Richard Engel, who's in Tobruk, Libya. Richard, you have been traveling from Egypt through eastern Libya. Tell me what you've been seeing and experiencing.
RICHARD ENGEL reporting: The roads are remarkably calm, people are out on the streets. I spoke with rebels just a short while ago. They say that finally this action has taken place, and they hope that they can get some more momentum again. I was here in this area about a week ago when the tide of events seemed to be turning against the rebels, and you didn't see them out much, they were abandoning their checkpoints. Now, once again, their checkpoints are out, and they were painting anti- Gadhafi graffiti, once again openly, on some of the buildings. So they feel that they have a renewed sense of optimism, and they hope to regain the momentum in this fight.
MR. GREGORY: Too little, too late is a question you keep hearing, Richard. I've heard your reporting on this. They had momentum a couple of weeks ago.
ENGEL: They certainly did. And the rebels are asking why didn't this come even a few days ago, before the, the major push into Benghazi-- which appears to have been repulsed -- actually took place at all. They had momentum right when they, when they began, and as soon as they left Benghazi they, they found themselves being crushed from the air. An air cover, an air cap over eastern Libya will give the rebels time to regroup, they say, time to take care of some of their wounded and perhaps learn from some of the mistakes that they made in the early days and try and advance with a little bit more skill and patience than they certainly exhibited in the, in the last time they tried to march toward Libya, which was really just wild firing in the air...
MR. GREGORY: Right.
ENGEL: ...and a completely uncoordinated effort.
MR. GREGORY: Richard, finally, based on your experience in the region and your reporting, what is Gadhafi up to?
ENGEL: Gadhafi seems to be laying the ground for an insurgency. He said today that he will give out today a million weapons to men and women mostly around Tripoli. He announced today that he will be opening the armory for all Libyans who want to fight to defend their country. And he said today that there will be a long war for Libya. So he seems to be preparing for allowing his people to fight and to drag the West and drag the rebels here in the east into some sort of war of attrition.
MR. GREGORY: Just quickly, though, is there any sense that he's feeling more pressure than he has in the past that somebody around him might kill him, or that he might decide to step down?
ENGEL: The one indication that he might be feeling physical pressure is that he has invited hundreds of supporters to live in presidential compounds, effectively as human shields. That is something that the U.S. is clearly going to be concerned about, and there have been people volunteering to go to sites that could be attacked by American or other Western missiles or air power. So that is -- could be an indication that he is nervous.
MR. GREGORY: Our chief foreign correspondent Richard Engel, thank you very much. Joining me now, the president's top military adviser, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen. Welcome back to MEET THE PRESS.
ADM. MIKE MULLEN: Good morning, David.
MR. GREGORY: Admiral, are we at war with Libya?
ADM. MULLEN: We are-- actually started yesterday limited operation and, and narrow in scope focused on supporting the United Nations Security Council resolution which very specifically focused on humanitarian efforts protecting the civilians in Libya. And I'd also say that operations yesterday went, went very well. Certainly, the, the -- in, in putting in place a no-fly zone, which is what we're, what we're doing right now. And, effectively, he hasn't had any aircraft or helicopters fly in the last couple days. So effectively that no-fly zone has, has been put in place.
MR. GREGORY: But just to speak plainly about it, as you've said, any no-fly zone begins with an act of war. This is war against Libya.
ADM. MULLEN: Well, what we did, certainly, is we took out his, his radars, his ability to, to, for the most part, attack us from the ground, and that's how you start to set up a no-fly zone. Again, it's very focused on ensuring that he can't execute -- continue to execute his own people. And we don't see any indications of any kind of large-scale massacre at this particular point in time.
MR. GREGORY: Let's look at the map here and talk about both the geography and some of the strikes. These are, according to the Defense Department, where some of the strikes are. Obviously Tripoli, which is where Gadhafi is. In Benghazi you don't see any strike points on that particular map. We know from our reporting out of our own folks at the Pentagon that B-2 bombers were deployed, dropping some 40 bombs against air defense systems within Libya. What is the concentration in Tripoli vs. Benghazi?
ADM. MULLEN: Well, I think as you look at that, most of those targets were part of his air defense system. And we also hit some of his airfields -- again, these -- this -- these are almost -- they're prerequisites for establishing a no-fly zone. And then we put combat air patrol, CAP, up above in various places, and we've got a -- we've got -- them aircraft stationed above Benghazi right now on a 24/7 basis. And then what, what we'll see do -- what we'll do is we'll move that, that capping capability, those aircraft, over time further to the west. But most of those strikes took out his air defenses and hit his airfields.
MR. GREGORY: Is there more to be done to limit his capacity to either attack planes or to attack rebels?
ADM. MULLEN: Some of the engagements yesterday included attacking his forces on the ground in the vicinity of Benghazi, and clearly the objective will be to, to attack those forces and ensure they are unable to continue to attack the innocent civilians, which he was doing as recently as yesterday morning in Benghazi.
MR. GREGORY: What about civilian casualties? Libyan TV, as you might expect...
ADM. MULLEN: Sure.
MR. GREGORY: ...has said there have been civilians hit.
ADM. MULLEN: Sure.
MR. GREGORY: Have we -- can we confirm that?
ADM. MULLEN: Well, all of these targets were looked at in terms of absolutely minimizing collateral damage. And the reports I've seen have indicated minimum collateral damage. I haven't seen any reports of civilian, civilian casualties. And I think, true to form, what Gadhafi has done is -- has put in place both human shields in some cases, as well as created or, or said that we have generated civilian casualties. I just haven't seen it.
MR. GREGORY: What else do you expect him to do in the coming hours and days? There is a stockpile believed to be a mustard gas. He's talked about lashing out using terrorism against Western interests. What do you expect?
ADM. MULLEN: We've focused very heavily on, on the chemical capability that he has and don't see any indication that that's -- that he's moving on that. We, we've been focused on that for days. This is the -- yesterday and, and today is the first phase of a multi-phase operation, but what we expected is him to stay down, not fly his aircraft, not attack his own people and to allow the humanitarian efforts, which is such a significant part of the United Nations resolution, to take place.
MR. GREGORY: The goal, as the president has stated it, is to protect civilians. But he's also made it very clear that Gadhafi has to go. How, with this kind of limited military operation, can you achieve that goal?
ADM. MULLEN: Well, in the next few days, David-- first of all, I would expect us to pass the leadership of the military operation to be led by those in the coalition, and that the United States, in particular, would support with unique capabilities, which could include jamming, intelligence support, the kinds of things that -- tanker support for the aircraft, those kinds of things. And then to support the kind of humanitarian effort that I talked about. And then I think over time, obviously, Colonel Gadhafi's going to have to -- he's going to have to make some decisions. Clearly, there's been significant international isolation, significant sanctions, an arms embargo, an off -- and, and a very broad coalition internationally to isolate him. And I think he's going to have to make some choices about his own future at that point.
MR. GREGORY: But I mean, you know, we may have -- maybe we had a lot of faith in him making the right choices since we've been after him for decades. He hasn't done that. Do we have it in our interest and in our plans to go get him?
ADM. MULLEN: Well, I -- certainly, we've looked at, as we prepared for this, all kinds of options. The president's been very clear that we're not going to put any boots on the ground. This isn't about occupation in any way, shape or form.
MR. GREGORY: But what if doesn't work? What if the goal of preventing civilian death, or the goal of getting him out of power doesn't work? Why put that limit in place?
ADM. MULLEN: Well, I think certainly the no-fly zone will allow us to continue to both attack and monitor his forces. And, at least initially, it looks like it's had a positive impact in terms of preventing further civilian casualties. And, and then I think that what happens next in speculating about that is there's uncertainty associated with that. The whole idea's to put as much pressure on this guy so he doesn't continue to kill his own people, and isolate him internationally, which he is, I believe, more than he has ever been.
MR. GREGORY: But isn't it a legitimate -- it's not just a diplomatic question, it's a military question. If the goals do not prevent Gadhafi from going, what do we do? There's the prospect of Gadhafi holed up in Tripoli, a divided Libya. This is not a sustainable strategy.
ADM. MULLEN: This is -- certainly the goals of this campaign right now again are limited, and it isn't, it isn't about seeing him go. It's about supporting the United Nations resolution, which talked to limiting or eliminating the -- his ability to kill his own people, as well as support the humanitarian effort.
MR. GREGORY: So the mission can be accomplished and Gadhafi can remain in power?
ADM. MULLEN: That's certainly, potentially, one outcome.
MR. GREGORY: Is this in our vital interest as a country?
ADM. MULLEN: It's -- I think the president's made it very clear that our national interests are tied to a country that is so close to us in the Mediterranean, that borders Egypt and Tunisia, two countries that are also undergoing significant change as we speak, and clearly, the focus on the humanitarian piece in terms of someone who has massacred his people in the past and preventing that. In that regard, it is.
MR. GREGORY: But there are also questions about the double standard here. Why do we make a move on Libya, and yet in Bahrain, where Saudis send troops in to help a monarchy, we stand back?
ADM. MULLEN: Well, again, this mission is very focused on Libya, and we're paying a lot of attention to what's going on in Bahrain and in the Persian Gulf as well. And the other thing is, each one of these countries, I think, is different. We've tried to focus on it in a different way. We've had a great friendship with Bahrain for, for many, many decades. We've got one of our main naval base -- bases are there. And we're working hard to support that, in a way, to certainly see a peaceful outcome there in terms of how it evolves when the Bahraini people are asking for change as well.
MR. GREGORY: Is it possible that it's too late to really make a difference here? Had a no-fly zone been implemented a couple of weeks ago when the rebels had more momentum that that would have been the time to act and now it's too late?
ADM. MULLEN: Oh, I think that's speculation, David. I just -- I, I don't know that going two weeks ago would have turned this one way or another. Essentially, I think it was important to have the international sanctioning, the United Nations resolution and, and the coalition, a broad coalition which both condemns him and actually acts against him in terms of implementing the specifics of the no-fly zone.
MR. GREGORY: How long will this go on?
ADM. MULLEN: I -- it's hard to say how long it will go on. I actually -- I mean, over the last 24 hours there's been a significant amount of progress. As I said, effectively the no-fly zone has been put in place. We have halted him in the vicinity of Benghazi, which is where he was most recently on the march. And then it's hard to say what'll happen in the next few days or weeks.
MR. GREGORY: And what happens if Gadhafi goes? Are we prepared to see the rebels put forward a leader for that country?
ADM. MULLEN: Well, I've -- we've actually been in touch with the opposition in terms of understanding what they want, but I think there's certainly a lot of work to do to, to look at what the next steps would be with respect to what will happen in that country, and that would principally be left up to the people in Libya.
MR. GREGORY: A third war in a Muslim country, eight years after the invasion of Iraq, is this simply too much for the United States to take on?
ADM. MULLEN: Well, certainly, I'm very much aware of, of the, the significant steps we've taken and that this is a, certainly, another -- an additional fight. That said, we're more than capable of meeting the needs. Again, this is a, this is a limited, narrowly scoped mission, and we have the capability and capacity and, as has been the case for so long, we've got great, great people, and they've executed exceptionally well.
MR. GREGORY: Do I detect any reluctance from you, though?
ADM. MULLEN: No. None whatsoever. None whatsoever. I mean, the president has said this is a mission to carry out, and we are, in fact, executing it and we can do that within the -- you know, within even the, the, the challenges and stress that are presented broadly across the force.
MR. GREGORY: Is it possible that the United States will take a backseat in this effort very quickly?
ADM. MULLEN: Well, they're -- we're looking to, while leading it now, we're looking to hand off that leadership in the next few days. This is a military operation, so that's got to be done smoothly. There's a coalition which has come together, a commitment to a coalition lead with respect to this, and we would expect that to happen in the near future. And then we will provide the kind of support and unique capabilities that I spoke to earlier.
MR. GREGORY: Admiral Mullen, we'll be following it all closely. Thank you very much.
ADM. MULLEN: Thank you, David.
MR. GREGORY: And coming up, our special coverage of Libya continues. The view from Capitol Hill. We'll talk to the top foreign policymakers in the Senate, chairman of the Armed Services Committee, Democratic Senator Carl Levin; chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, Democratic Senator John Kerry; and Republican member of the Armed Services Committee, Senator Jeff Sessions.
MR. GREGORY: Coming up, reaction from Capitol Hill on the U.S. strike in Libya. Senators Kerry, Levin and Sessions join me, up next, right after this brief commercial break.
MR. GREGORY: We are back, our special Libya coverage, joined now by the top foreign policymakers in the Senate. From Cairo, the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, Democrat Senator John Kerry; chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Democrat Carl Levin of Michigan; and Republican members of the Armed Services Committee, Senator Jeff Sessions. Welcome to all of you. In terms of the end game here, Senators, President Obama earlier this month couldn't have been more clear in terms of what he wanted to happen to Colonel Gadhafi. Listen.
PRES. BARACK OBAMA: Let me just be very unambiguous about this. Colonel Gadhafi needs to step down from power and leave.
MR. GREGORY: And yet, Senator Kerry, I want to hear from all of you in terms of reacting to this. You heard from Admiral Mullen this morning that, in fact, Gadhafi could remain in power and this military mission could still be seen as a success. Do you agree with that?
SEN. JOHN KERRY (D-MA): Well, the goal of this mission, David, is not to get rid of Gadhafi, and that's not what the United Nations licensed. And I would not call it going to war. This is a very limited operation that is geared to save lives, and it was specifically targeted on a humanitarian basis. It is not geared to try to get rid of Gadhafi. He has not been targeted. That is not what is happening here. So, in my judgment, we have to see where we go from here. Remember, in Kosovo after the initial efforts, President Martti Ahtisaari of Finland and Viktor Chernomyrdin of the Soviet Union came and were -- Russia were involved immediately in diplomacy, and he ultimately was persuaded to do things. I think there's a lot of room here for a lot of different initiatives. But this operation was not specifically geared to get rid of Gadhafi.
MR. GREGORY: Well, Senator Levin, is that the right outcome? Again, the president couldn't have been any more clear about what he wants to have happen, and yet he's launched a military operation without that goal?
SEN. CARL LEVIN (D-MI): He has a military operation with very clear mission, and that's what the president should do is have a clear mission and to avoid mission creep. And one of the things that I know our military are very -- were very concerned about was that there could be mission creep. They don't have that concern anymore because this mission has been very carefully limited. After a few days there's going to be a handoff. After the air is cleared of any threats, there's going to be a handoff to our allies, and this mission will then be carried on by French, by British, and by Arab countries. And that's very important. One of the reasons I predict that there will be strong bipartisan support in the Congress for the president's decision is because it is a limited mission, no boots on the ground, and because he has done this with great caution, with great care. And I saw that in person in the White House on Friday and was very impressed...
MR. GREGORY: Well...
SEN. LEVIN: ...by the caution and the care that the president is putting into this.
MR. GREGORY: Senator Sessions, as a Republican, do you support what the president's done, specifically some of the limits he's placed on no U.S. ground forces being committed?
SEN. JEFF SESSIONS (R-AL): I'm supportive of that at this point. And I do think, however, the no-fly zone, as it's being executed, has proven Senator Kerry and Senator McCain in their call for a no-fly zone correct. They did that several weeks ago. And certainly, had it been done several weeks ago, we'd be in better shape than we are today. So the fact that it has been...
MR. GREGORY: Are you actually concerned that this is too little, too late?
SEN. SESSIONS: Well, I think that's a very real concern. We could end up with the, the rebels having lost momentum and creating a prolonged stalemate in which Libya and the people of Libya are subjected to violence for months and maybe even longer than that.
MR. GREGORY: Senator...
SEN. SESSIONS: We -- I can't quite see where we are heading. I can't see exactly where the endgame is, and I do think it is a troubling situation. We just hope for the best and maybe this will be successful. But I don't see the certainty of it for sure.
MR. GREGORY: Senator Kerry, to kind of synthesize some of reaction out there, it's -- what are we doing? What are we doing in Libya? Your ranking member on the Foreign Relations Committee told our own chief foreign affairs correspondent Andrea Mitchell on her program on MSNBC a couple of weeks ago the following. I'll put it up on the screen. "Our dilemma," Senator Lugar said, "very frankly, is that we are not in a position to police each of these countries to establish governments that we believe are just for the people, and even to find partners, in some cases, who are likely to exemplify our ideals of human rights and democracy."
SEN. KERRY: Well, Senator Lugar is a wise, wise, you know, counselor on these issues, and I have nothing but enormous respect for him. But we're not policing Libya. We are engaged in a humanitarian initiative to prevent the slaughter of innocent people, to prevent a dictator from dragging people out of hospital beds, and they disappear, and he kills them, to ruling his country by pure force when there is an indigenous movement to try to join with the rest of the countries in this Arab awakening that is taking place. And the important thing here, David, is to see this in the larger context. I think we have enormous interest here personally, the interest of making clear to Tunisians, to Egyptians, to others who are moving towards this awakening that the rest of the world is not going to stand by while people are slaughtered by somebody who has lost...
MR. GREGORY: But, Senator Kerry, I have to interrupt.
SEN. KERRY: ...all legitimacy to be able to govern. Let -- yeah.
MR. GREGORY: Senator Levin, there is a double standard at work here. I mean, how do you not look at the region...
SEN. KERRY: No.
MR. GREGORY: ...and say, well, the United States did not intervene on behalf of Shiites who were being repressed by a Sunni monarchy in Bahrain when Saudis sent in troops, but we're choosing Libya to take this stand...
SEN. KERRY: Well, David...
MR. GREGORY: ...and when a lot of people think -- let Senator Levin respond to this -- this is a civil war that we're intervening in.
SEN. KERRY: But can I just add that I profoundly disagree with that.
SEN. LEVIN: Yeah. What you're missing, it seems to me -- now, what you're missing here very, very -- you're missing a lot here is that this is the world that has made a decision. This is a unique situation where the entire world has come together, including the Arab world, and has said the Gadhafi slaughter needs to be stopped. It is not just we, the United States. It's quite the opposite. One of the reasons there will be congressional support here is that the president has taken the time to put the world community together, to get the world community to say to Gadhafi, "This slaughter must stop." That is not true in those other countries, and it's a very important fact.
MR. GREGORY: OK. Senator Kerry, go ahead, make your point on this as well.
SEN. KERRY: Well, I have a couple of points to make. Number one, the president has been crystal clear about Bahrain. He has said that the violence needs to stop in Bahrain. The crown prince of Bahrain has offered to have a mediation, to have a national dialogue. And the truth is that, in Bahrain where there is a 70 percent Shia population, you have a certain amount of mischief being made by Iran and by Hezbollah, and it's simply not the same situation. But moreover, the Arab community, I mean, the Arab League, is the game changer here. They asked us to come in. The Gulf states, the GCC, asked us to come in. The opposition pleaded with the international community to help prevent this slaughter. I think it would be unconscionable in the face of the first time the Arab League and the Gulf states are turning to the world for help in order to move towards greater enfranchisement of their people for the United States to move away.
MR. GREGORY: Quickly...
SEN. KERRY: That would be a denial of everything we, we supported in Egypt, of everything we've supported in Tunisia, of everything we support every single day with respect to democracy and freedom.
MR. GREGORY: I want -- Senator Sessions -- I want to ask one other question on this before I want to get to some of your views on Japan and the fallout for America. Senator Sessions, should the president have consulted and sought authorization from Congress for this action?
SEN. SESSIONS: I'm not sure he needed to have done that, but I frankly think we could have been better briefed on it. Senator Levin, I know, and I'm sure Senator McCain and Senator Kerry and, and Lugar have gotten more briefings than the average member of the Senate and House has gotten. But it is a factor that we know that the president has to be in contact with Congress. He's now out of the country, and that probably has been less than it should have been at this point.
MR. GREGORY: I want to turn to Japan, another crisis that the president is facing, and, of course, what the Japanese are dealing with. Here are some of the latest facts to emerge out of the disaster in Japan. The death toll now upwards of 8,100. Still so many missing, and the number of missing well over 12,000. Some signs of hope, though. Incredible images coming out of Japan early today from Ishinomaki as there were incredible rescues of a, of a teenager as well as an 80-year-old grandmother who was stuck inside of her house. Thankfully, though, those two people were rescued. But, Senator Levin, the -- as the nuclear emergency continues in Japan there are real questions about the future of nuclear power in this country. After Three Mile Island back in 1979, as a young senator you called for a moratorium of six months on any nuclear power plants in the United States. Should that hold true now?
SEN. LEVIN: Well, I think there ought to be a period here where all of our nuclear plants are tested very, very carefully to make sure that they are safe, and to make sure that this cannot happen here. But I don't think that we can say that we're not going to continue to use nuclear power. Europe depends heavily on it, and they have found it to be safe. We use it a lot. We have found it, since Three Mile Island, to be safe. And it seems to me that the great hope that we have, ultimately, in terms of greenhouse gas is to move away from fossil fuels. And although I think we have to be mighty careful about nuclear power, we should put a lot of effort into seeing what we can do with the waste, that we cannot give up on that possibility because of the climate change which is occurring from fossil fuels.
MR. GREGORY: Senator Kerry, about 30 seconds here. How big of a blow has nuclear power, as part of our energy mix, been dealt here?
SEN. KERRY: Well, I think it's taken some hit, obviously. But I think it's going to cause everybody to look for the fail-safe methodology and what the next generation of nuclear power might or might not be. I think, you know, of equal urgency is simply responding to the demand of climate change and the need to move away from fossil fuels. The faster we build an energy grid in America that we move to solar, thermal, other things, I think the marketplace will make that decision for us.
MR. GREGORY: Senator Sessions, after the gulf oil spill, after the nuclear emergency in Japan, do you think the president is capable of leading a bipartisan effort to really make energy policy a priority, and to lead to some change?
SEN. SESSIONS: He's -- he has to do that. He has not done that. The Energy Department seems to be putting out more roadblocks on American energy production than actually leading in the way to produce more energy. We need more clean, American energy. Now, that is a driving force for this country right now. We're not seeing that leadership. We've got gulf oil production blocked basically by not getting permits. Only two have been made and, and -- since the oil spill.
MR. GREGORY: Right.
SEN. SESSIONS: And we need to get moving. We simply cannot afford not to.
MR. GREGORY: I'm going to have to make that the last word. Senators, thank you all very much. Coming up, after almost a decade of war, the U.S. military finds itself stretched thinner by yet another conflict in the Middle East. What ignited Saturday's decision to mobilize in Libya? And what are the consequences for the U.S. and the president's legacy? Our roundtable weighs in: president of Council on Foreign Relations, Richard Haass; former CIA director Michael Hayden; NBC's Andrea Mitchell and Jim Miklaszewski; and The New York Times' Helene Cooper.
MR. GREGORY: And we are back, joined now by our political roundtable: White House correspondent for The New York Times, Helene Cooper; NBC News chief foreign affairs correspondent, Andrea Mitchell; former director of the NSA and CIA, and principal of the Chertoff Group, Michael Hayden; president of the Council of Foreign Relations, Richard Haass; and NBC News chief Pentagon correspondent, Jim Miklaszewski. Welcome to all of you. So much to get to, as this is a breaking story. I want to talk, however, about how much is on the president's plate right now. You talk about crisis management and a confluence of crisis. We've pulled together some cover stories from Time magazine-- I want to put it up there on the screen -- " Target
Gaddafi." The next one, "Hitting Home: Tripoli Under Attack." And the next one, "Meltdown." Folks, that was the spring 1986, 25 years ago. Andrea Mitchell, we're back. We're covering the same issues.
MS. ANDREA MITCHELL: I was there 25 years ago, which is what's even more scary, and I was at Three Mile Island. When you look at the crisis management here, questions are being raised about how quickly -- as you heard, Senator Sessions raise that question -- and I don't think that's just politics here because there are legitimate questions that international allies as well are asking about why not sooner when the rebels were ascendant. Because now you really have a situation where they will deny it because they don't have the legal authority for it, but this is regime change. There is no other option here.
MR. GREGORY: And I, and I want to get more into that, but I want to just say, 25 years ago, Richard Haass, Chernobyl was the meltdown in that Time magazine cover. But again, confluence of crisis. For any president, this is a lot to manage at one time.
MR. RICHARD HAASS: It's a lot to manage, but also it raises the importance of an administration having its priorities. You've got a lot to manage with Japan, you've got a lot to manage with what's going on in the broader Middle East, you've got a lot to manage what's going on in the United States in terms of our economy and our deficit. So one of the real questions is why are we doing as much are we are doing in Libya? So many of your guests are talking about too little too late. Let me give you another idea, David, too much too late. In times of crisis and multiple crisis, administrations have to figure out their priorities. They got to do some triage. The -- to me, the big problem is not what we haven't done, it is what we are doing.
MR. GREGORY: And, Helene Cooper, as I played for the senators, President Obama was clear on this, he wants Gadhafi to go. And yet you heard from Admiral Mullen and Senator Kerry saying, "Well, that's not the mission here." And Andrea just alluded to it.
MS. HELENE COOPER: There's been so much ambivalence in the administration in -- on Libya, and that's because, because at, at its heart the administration really doesn't want to do this. The Pentagon certainly doesn't want to be at war in Libya. They've been saying for weeks Libya is not a national security interest, we should be worried about what's going on in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain. There are far greater American national security interests going on, particularly when you look at what's happening throughout the region. Libya is just not -- and which is why I think you see this sort of -- the appearance of a completely inconsistent policy. President Obama himself, in announcing that we were going to be doing military strikes, was very -- said at the same time that he says we're going to war, says it's not going to be long, it's only going to be a few, you know, days, not weeks. You know, you, you, you definitely get this sort of push-pull type of feeling, which I think is...
MR. GREGORY: And, Jim, Jim Miklaszewski, you, you've covered presidents, you've covered Pentagons. Here was candidate Obama on this program interviewed by Tim Russert back in 2006. And listen to this.
MR. TIM RUSSERT: And what, in your mind, would define a great president?
SEN. BARACK OBAMA: Obviously, most of the time it seems that the president has maybe 10 percent of his agenda set by himself and 90 percent of it set by circumstances.
MR. GREGORY: Well, we're living firmly in the 90 percent, and yet leadership tests here, how he'll be defined, are very much by these tests.
MR. JIM MIKLASZEWSKI: And to follow up a little bit on what Helene said, both Secretary Gates at the Pentagon and Admiral Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, gave President Obama an escape hatch when it came to Libya. When just two weeks ago Secretary Gates warned that to launch any kind of air strikes, impose a no-fly zone had unintended consequences of a second and third order. David, we haven't even seen the first order of consequences yet that probably lie ahead.
MR. GREGORY: General Hayden, what are your concerns and your thoughts right now as you're watching this unfold?
GEN. MICHAEL HAYDEN (Retired): Well, I, I think what the folks that I used to serve with in the armed forces in the intelligence community are, are wondering is, "How do I know when I'm done? What, what, what constitutes accomplishing this mission?" I mean, we can say this is for humanitarian purposes, we can say it's a no-fly zone; but, in reality, what we have done is intervene in a Libyan civil war. We now own a moral responsibility for the outcome.
MR. GREGORY: And, Andrea, to your point, you think part of that outcome is not to rest until Gadhafi's gone.
MS. MITCHELL: He -- they cannot let this continue. They're can't have Gadhafi in charge as the outcome of this. Now we are committed, and it's very clear from the people I'm talking to inside the administration that they expect that either his own people will get him or there will be some other way of getting him. Either we get him or they get him, but he is going to be ousted. Then the question becomes one that Secretary Clinton
raised when she was a skeptic initially about this: Whom are we dealing with? Who are these rebels? What kind of vacuum have we created? This has some analogy to what happened when we disbanded the Ba'ath army. And if Gadhafi is now arming everyone, you're going to have street fighting, hand-to-hand combat in Libya.
MR. GREGORY: Richard, you, you just have broad concerns as you, as you penned a piece in the Wall Street Journal earlier this month, " The US should keep out of Libya."
MR. HAASS: Again, our interests aren't vital. We're talking about 2 percent of the world's oil. Yes, there's a humanitarian situation on, but at the risk of seeming a bit cold, it is not a humanitarian crisis on the scale say of Rwanda. We don't have nearly 100 -- a million people, innocent men, women and children whose lives are threatened. This is something much more modest. This is a civil war. In civil wars, people get killed, unfortunately. But we shouldn't kid ourselves. This is not a humanitarian intervention, this is U.S. political, military intervention in a civil conflict which, by the way, history suggests, often prolongs the civil conflict. And, as several people have already pointed out, what is step B? Whether Gadhafi complies with what we want or whether he resists successfully, either way, we are going to be stuck with the aftermath of essentially having to take ownership of Libya with others. And just because others are willing to share in something, as so many people point out, doesn't make it a better policy. It just means the costs are going to be distributed. But the policy itself is seriously flawed.
MR. GREGORY: There are some of these big questions. Helene, the piece that you broke ground with in the Times yesterday -- we'll put the headline up on the screen -- in terms of the secretary of state-- not the LA Times but the New York Times-- talking about Secretary of State's Clinton's role really driving this. What changed here internally? There's the headline. "Shift by Clinton Helped Persuade President to Take a Harder Line."
MS. COOPER: I think there are a number of factors, but it was such an interesting debate. And Richard brings up Rwanda. I think actually Rwanda did have something to do with it because you had Secretary Clinton, who was first lady during the Rwanda genocide and whose husband has said that not intervening is one of his biggest regrets; you have Susan Rice, who was the African adviser at the time who also was -- had a lot of Rwanda history there; and you had this sort of barely unlikely combination alliance between the two, along with Samantha Power who -- top human rights advocate; and it's sort of, in a lot of ways, is sort of the girls took on the guys.
MR. GREGORY: Hm.
MS. COOPER: You had Gates on the other hand in the Pentagon saying, "Look, we've got..."
MR. GREGORY: And Mullen. I mean...
MS. COOPER: Right, and Mullen. You could see...
MR. GREGORY: ...you could really see that reluctance today.
MS. COOPER: ...you could see from the interview with Mullen how much that, you know, and -- but they, you know, once the Arab League over the weekend sort of swung behind. There have been so many things nobody expected with the Libya case. Nobody thought the Arab League would, would come behind and say, "Yes, we want a no-fly zone as well." Once the Arab League did, you know, and these -- the Obama administration was faced with this specter of possibly seeing on TV the slaughter in Benghazi. Hillary Clinton got, during a meeting in Paris, in a Paris hotel room on Tuesday met with the UAE leader, and, and he agreed to pledge Arab troops and Arab, Arab fighter pilots to the cause. And, at that point, she sort of flipped over, and that started the, the switch for Obama. But he still doesn't seem to be -- his heart doesn't seem to be really in it.
MS. MITCHELL: And I think, as Helene has reported, Clinton was driving this because of what she was hearing from the allies as well. Susan Rice did a remarkable job at the U.N. No one could have predicted -- even critics of the policy could not predict such a muscular resolution being approved and the abstentions from Russia and China. This came much faster than anyone expected, and it came with a -- some very adept diplomacy.
MR. GREGORY: Well, and General Hayden, you said that this notion of a no-fly zone is -- how do you describe it? Should not be the focus.
GEN. HAYDEN: Right, right. No. I mean, look, it wasn't the Libyan air force that was causing problems. It was the preponderance of ground power that Gadhafi could bring to bear. And so stopping them flying doesn't solve anything.
MR. GREGORY: No. It's so we can bomb them from their airspace, right? If they start to move on the ground.
GEN. HAYDEN: We have -- we have to do. But I found it striking that your reporter from Tobruk said that the reaction of the opposition to this was they're putting their helmets back on, buttoning their chin straps...
MR. GREGORY: Yeah.
GEN. HAYDEN: ...and going back on the offensive. Now, what kind of dilemma policywise does that present us with if now it's the opposition on the move taking on Gadhafi's forces?
MR. GREGORY: All right. Now I want to get a quick break in here. We're going to come back and talk about this and some of the bigger questions about what comes next. More with our roundtable as the situation in Libya unfolds right after this.
MR. GREGORY: We're back. Richard Haass, let me pick up with you. The issue that was on the table is, what if now the opposition feels emboldened, and they're now on the move, and civil war starts again? What position does that put us in?
MR. HAASS: Well, that's exactly what's going to happen.
MR. GREGORY: Yeah.
MR. HAASS: And we don't know what the political agenda of these people are. The tribal makeup of Libya is so complex. I hope that the people making the decisions in the administration have a real feel for what is going on and what are going to be the political agendas of the people we may be now empowering. But the one thing we know is that this thing now has a new lease on life. And what might have burned out is not going to, if you will, be rekindled. This is now going to be a prolonged civil war. And at some point we're going to have to decide new forms of intervention. It's not going to stop here, David. It's not going to end with simply the United States shooting off some Tomahawks or doing some aircraft runs. This is going to require, ultimately, the one thing the administration says it probably doesn't want to do, boots on the ground. Someone is going to have to provide that kind of involvement in Libya because this is a country that is going to be fundamentally divided with places people are killing each other and places the government is not in control of.
MR. GREGORY: Jim Miklaszewski, see Iraq, see Afghanistan, eight years and 10 years respectively. In Iraq, this was supposed to be in, greeted like liberators, and we were going to leave.
MR. MIKLASZEWSKI: As Yogi Berra would say, " Deja vu all over again." And to tear down a couple of facades very quickly, one, that this about a no-fly zone. It's not. As a matter of fact, U.S. Air Force F-15s and F-16s today were over Libya with the express purpose of attacking Libyan ground forces, which they did. And yesterday, Admiral Gortney said, you know, this is all about protecting civilians and the opposition forces, which gets us into the middle of that civil war that Richard was just talking about. And finally, this premise that this is a coalition effort, right now it's all U.S. It's U.S. commanded, U.S. led, U.S. military. And when Admiral Mullen was talking about handing over command of the coalition, I was told, number one, well, "We're really not in any hurry to do that." And number two, it could be an American commander.
MR. GREGORY: But, Jim, is that fair? I mean, General Hayden, I had a member of the Bush administration say to me candidly, look, can you imagine if Sarkozy was in power in 2002 as we were starting the Iraq War. You really do have the French and the British leading on this. As the senator has pointed out, the Arab League swinging behind this here. It'd be difficult, Gadhafi may try, but to make this a unilateral U.S. effort here.
GEN. HAYDEN: Oh, no. and I, I don't think anyone's saying that we should. But let's look at why people are doing these things. I think the Arab League move was quite remarkable, frankly. But with our European friends, I mean, this is about cold, hard facts. This is about mass migration. They, they have a direct interest here that they have to protect. It's no wonder that they had a greater sense of urgency about this than we did.
MR. GREGORY: Helene, the -- one of the questions that I look at, you look at what's happening throughout the Middle East, revolution throughout the Middle East, and for this president, for this administration, you have to ask, what are the big ideas and are we getting the big ideas right?
MS. COOPER: It's -- that's such a great question, and people are always raising the issue who, who are the strategic thinkers within this administration. And I think, you know, when -- and when people ask the question of who actually drives American foreign policy in the administration, at the end of the day, it's Obama. And that, I think, is, is sort of really interesting. But they are in such a weird position right now because you're seeing this inconsistency. We're going after Gadhafi, but we're not doing it in Bahrain. You see what happened, how long it took in Egypt, and we're very quick in Tunisia, and then Yemen, and you've got, you know, what -- we're -- we have a lot of counterterrorism concerns in Yemen as well. One of the really interesting debates that came forward through -- during -- on the Libya front was when John Brennan, President Obama's terrorism adviser, raised the issue of the fact that a lot of these Libyan rebels have ties to al-Qaeda. Al-Qaeda and the Maghreb put out a statement on Thursday saying that they were with the Libyan opposition.
MR. GREGORY: Right.
MS. COOPER: So there's so much...
MR. GREGORY: The big ideas and are we getting them right?
MR. HAASS: Mike Mullen says the big idea, the biggest single national security threat facing the United States is our economy, it's our fiscal situation. This will not make it better. Instead, we are ignoring a previous secretary of state, John Quincy Adams, someone you haven't had on the show in awhile. We are going abroad in search of monsters to destroy. There's any number of monsters. But is this, right now, something that's strategically necessary and vital for the United States, given all that's happening in places like Egypt, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, around the world, with all that we need to repair at home? The answer, I would think, is not. And that's the big idea the administration's missing. It's not enough to simply want to do good around the world wherever we see bad. We've got to ask ourselves, where can we do good, at what cost, against what else we might have to do?
MR. GREGORY: And, Andrea, I mean, it's values vs. interests.
MS. MITCHELL: The problem that the president has in projecting American values is that he first of all believes in a multilaterous policy. Now, on that score, he has, he has really accomplished that. This was pretty remarkable bringing this whole coalition together and getting the Arab League. But the problem of American interests is not really resolved because our interests really, as has been said, lies in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia. And there is the conflict that I think we're about to face. In Bahrain, it's already in the streets; Saudia Arabia repressed, but -- and paid off by economic interests domestically. But that is the crisis. You're going to have leadership changes there with the aging leadership sooner rather than later.
MR. GREGORY: Right.
MS. MITCHELL: And concern that what's happening in Libya could also destabilize Egypt and Tunisia and whatever gains are being made.
MR. GREGORY: And where is President Obama this weekend? He is in South America. We have pictures of him arriving in Brazil. There's been a lot of question, Jim Miklaszewski, about the president's leadership, passivity in the face of Japan or Libya. Perhaps in that latter case that's been erased, given what he's ordered here. But here he is riding out this initial weekend in Brazil. He wasn't even the one to announce the beginning of hostilities.
MR. MIKLASZEWSKI: Well, it's clear the White House has tried to distance itself from being at the center or in the lead of the political surge and diplomatic surge to send U.S. forces and a coalition into Libya. But I can tell you that, in all the discussions with senior U.S. military and Pentagon officials, they say that President Obama is very engaged. And his first inclination appeared to follow the advice of the SecDef Gates and Admiral Mullen to stay out of Libya.
MR. GREGORY: Bad idea, bad idea for him to be away, though, to be out of the country with this.
MS. MITCHELL: I think there's a lot to be said for not, not insulting the entire region with China advancing its economic interests in Latin America. But I think they could have found a better way for him to announce it rather than being trapped in a joint statement with the Brazilian president and, and not really saying something aggressive.
MR. GREGORY: All right. We're going to leave it there. We'll continue to follow all of this. Thank you very much. Before we go, a quick programming note. Stay with NBC and MSNBC throughout the day for continuing coverage of the conflict in Libya. Our rebroadcast, we should point out, on MSNBC, airs at 2 PM and 5 PM Eastern today. That is all for today. We'll be back next week. If it's Sunday, it's MEET THE