Libya ‘Not a Vital National Interest to the United States,’ Defense Secretary Gates Says

By Susan Jones | March 28, 2011 | 5:39 AM EDT

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, shown here on NBC's "Meet the Press" on March, 26, 2011, made the rounds of the Sunday interview shows to defend the administration's decision to attack the Libyan regime as part of a U.N.-authorized mission. (AP Photo/NBC, William B. Plowman)

( - "Do you think Libya posed an actual or imminent threat to the United States?" Defense Secretary Robert Gates was asked Sunday on the ABC News program "This Week."

"No, no," Gates replied to ABC’s Jake Tapper. "It was not -- it was not a vital national interest to the United States, but it was an interest -- and it was an interest for all of the reasons Secretary Clinton talked about -- the engagement of the Arabs, the engagement of the Europeans, the general humanitarian question that was at stake.

Gates said there was another consideration the administration took into account in using military force against the Gaddafi regime -- the revolutions both east and west of Libya, in Egypt and Tunisia: "So you had a potentially significantly destabilizing event taking place in Libya that put at risk potentially the revolutions in both Tunisia and Egypt.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, appearing with Gates on "This Week" with Gates, added that every decision the administration could have made regarding Libya had "plusses and minuses."

Clinton painted a slaughter scenario as justification for Obama initiating hostilities in Libya, something he did with United Nations authorization but not congressional authorization.

"Imagine we were sitting here and Benghazi had been overrun, a city of 700,000 people, and tens of thousands of people had been slaughtered, hundreds of thousands had fled and, as Bob (Gates) said, either with nowhere to go or overwhelming Egypt while it's in its own difficult transition. And we were sitting here, the cries would be, why did the United States not do anything? Why -- how could you stand by when, you know, France and the United Kingdom and other Europeans and the Arab League and your Arab partners were saying you've got to do something."

Tapper asked how the administration could justify attacking Libya without congressional approval, when Obama himself, as a presidential candidate, had rejected such action as unconstitutional.

Clinton, responding to Tapper, said the administration "would welcome congressional support. But," she continued: "I don't think that this kind of internationally authorized intervention where we are one of a number of countries participating to enforce a humanitarian mission is the kind of unilateral action that either I or President Obama were -- was speaking of several years ago.

“I think that this had a limited timeframe, a very clearly defined mission which we are in the process of fulfilling," she added.

Clinton also noted that the U.S. Senate, on March 1, passed a nonbinding resolution calling for the United Nations Security Council to impose a no-fly zone over Libya. "[T]here was a lot of congressional support to do something," Clinton said, apparently suggesting that a non-binding resolution from the Senate alone was enough authorization for the administration to act.

Defense Secretary Gates said regime change in Libya "was never part of the military mission." He said now that a no-fly zone has been established over Libya, "it will need to be sustained."

Hillary Clinton said now that NATO is "assuming the responsibility for the entire mission," the United States "will move to a supporting role."

President Obama likely will make similar points when he addresses the nation Monday night.