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Gates, Clinton: Libya not a 'vital interest,' but US could be there for months

Secretary of Defense Gates and Secretary of State Clinton say the US-led military action in Libya is going well. But while Libya is not a 'vital interest,' the US could be there for months.

By Staff writer / March 27, 2011

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates discuss the latest developments in the Middle East on CBS's "Face the Nation." Gates said he doesn't think Libya is "a vital interest" for the United States, but that the North African nation is part of a region that is of vital American interest.

Chris Usher/CBS/AP


On the eve of President Obama’s major speech on the rationale for going to war in Libya, senior officials say the joint military effort there is going well.

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But they add that additional US weaponry might be needed to attack Muammar Qaddafi’s forces on the ground, and they hold out the possibility that it might be months before the military mission is over.

Speaking on several Sunday television news shows, Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton increased the rhetorical pressure on Qaddafi – and on his closest aides, who might be persuaded to abandon him.

The administration is "sending a message to the people around him," Sec. Clinton said on NBC's Meet The Press. "Do you want to be a pariah? Do you really want to end up in the international criminal court? Now is your time to get out of this and to help change the direction."

While the no-fly zone is well-established and air attacks on Qaddafi’s armored units have allowed rebels to take key cities, Sec. Gates said, defeating Libyan military units might have to involve new air assault weapons and tactics – including attack helicopters and the AC-130 gunships able to rain down heavy cannon fire on enemy troops and equipment.

Concern for civilian "collateral damage"

But to the extent that Qaddafi forces take shelter in urban areas, even ground attack weapons more precise than bombs and cruise missiles risk causing “collateral damage,” i.e. civilian deaths and injuries.

That’s one reason why the US is considering whether to provide arms to the rebels, Gates said. But asked on ABC's This Week if the US military might be involved in the fighting through 2011, he said, "I don't think anybody knows the answer to that."

Critics in Congress and elsewhere have questioned the importance of Libya to US national security as a reason for going to war there.

On ABC, Gates acknowledged that Libya is “not a vital national interest to the United States.”

But Gates, Clinton, and Obama in his radio address Saturday insisted that the situation in Libya is important to US interests – including stability in the Middle East and northern Africa.


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