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Gates Backs Obama on Libya Air Attacks After Early Skepticism

Defense Secretary Robert Gates, an early voice of caution on U.S. military involvement in Libya, defended President Barack Obama’s decision to join the air campaign in an appearance on Capitol Hill.

Gates rejected charges from Republicans and Democrats on the House Armed Services Committee yesterday that Obama failed to consult Congress sufficiently or that there was a “mismatch” between a limited military campaign and the administration’s goal of ensuring Muammar Qaddafi’s ouster.

Committee Chairman Howard “Buck” McKeon, a California Republican, said he was “concerned that such a mismatch is a recipe for stalemate.”

Representative Mike Coffman, a Colorado Republican, challenged Gates on whether the administration did enough to warn Qaddafi that he’d face U.S. air strikes unless he ended attacks on civilians.

Gates ticked off a list of public signals, including resolutions by two different groups of Gulf and Arab nations and two from the United Nations.

“This wasn’t exactly like he was surprised,” Gates said.

When Coffman said the military goal of protecting civilians and a policy aim of forcing Qaddafi from office resulted in “just the most muddled definition of an operation probably in U.S. military history,” Gates fired back.

‘Quite Clear’

“The president has been quite clear in terms of what the military mission is, and that’s one of the reasons we can take the position there will be no boots on the ground,” Gates said. The need for a change in the regime can be handled politically, he said. “I don’t see how that’s muddled.”

Before the allied attack was launched, Gates spoke bluntly of the difficulty and danger of setting up a no-fly zone.

“There’s a lot of, frankly, loose talk about some of these military options, and let’s just call a spade a spade,” Gates told a House defense appropriations subcommittee on March 2. “A no-fly zone begins with an attack on Libya to destroy the air defenses.”

Yesterday’s back and forth showed Gates, a holdover in his job from President George W. Bush’s administration who has said he’ll leave his Pentagon post this year, putting his credibility behind the Libya operation.

“The military mission is a limited one and does not include regime change,” Gates told the committee. “Personally I felt strongly about that. We’ve tried regime change before.”

‘Welcome’ Removal

Political and economic pressure and the Libyan people probably will achieve the “welcome” removal of Qaddafi, Gates said. The U.S. and allied air strikes help by reducing Qaddafi’s military strength, he said.

The coalition of the U.S., U.K., France, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and others has degraded Qaddafi’s forces by 25 to 28 percent, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen told the panel.

It’s not the first time Gates has sparred with members of Congress. He has fought lawmakers’ efforts to preserve weapons contracts that the Pentagon says aren’t needed, such as an alternative engine for the Lockheed Martin Corp. F-35 jet.

Gates has proposed cutting defense programs and other belt-tightening over the next five years to save more than the $178 billion. His budget would plow $100 billion of that money into other, higher-priority items and the rest would go toward reducing the deficit.

Declining Role

Even as Gates defended the Libya mission, he voiced concern over the strain on a force also fighting wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, pursuing al-Qaeda, and providing assistance to Japan after its earthquake, tsunami and nuclear plant accident.

The U.S. role in the Libya operation has begun to decline now that the North Atlantic Treaty Organization has taken command, Gates said. As of two days ago, non-U.S. aircraft conducted more than half of the strike sorties over Libya in the previous 24-hour period, according to the Pentagon.

Gates cautioned against the U.S. providing weapons, training or command-and-control assistance to the rebels.

“There are many countries that can do that,” Gates said. “That is not a unique capability of the United States, and frankly, I think somebody else should do that.”

Representative Michael Turner, an Ohio Republican, seized on what he called Gates’s “candor” in telling the committee the U.S. knows little about the rebels other than a few leaders.

“We don’t know what they will do if they’re successful. We don’t know what form of government they will pursue,” Turner said. “Therefore, many of us are very concerned as to overall what would be the outcome here.”

Qaddafi’s History

Gates offered a litany of Qaddafi’s attacks on the U.S. He cited the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, and the 1986 attack on a Berlin nightclub frequented by American soldiers.

“We may not know much about the opposition or the rebels, but we know a great deal about Qaddafi,” Gates said. “This guy has been a huge problem for the United States for a long time.”

Gates also defended Obama’s verbal and written notification to Congress, which didn’t seek their consent for the air strikes. The defense chief cited his work on the staff of the White House National Security Council in the 1970s when Congress adopted the War Powers Act.

The legislation outlined a process for Congress and the president to decide on using U.S. forces in hostilities. It has been contentious ever since it was adopted, Gates said.

“President Obama is the eighth president I’ve worked for,” Gates said. “Seven operated under the War Powers Act, and I would say that his compliance in terms of consultation and notification of the Congress has been consistent with the actions taken by all of his predecessors, both Republicans and Democrats.”

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