"We have prevented the large scale slaughter that was beginning to take place, has taken place in some places. And so I think that we are at a point where the establishment of the no-fly zone and the protection of cities from the kind of wholesale military assault that we have seen certainly in the East has been accomplished and now we can move to sustainment," he said.
President Obama has called for Libyan leader Muammar Gadhafi's departure, but regime change is not one of the goals of the United Nations-led military operations. Tapper asked about this seeming inconsistency.
"So why not have, as part of the mission, regime change, removing Gadhafi from power?" Tapper asked the Secretary of Defense.
"Well, first of all, I think you don't want ever to set a set of goals or a mission -- military mission where you can't be confident of accomplishing your objectives," he said. "And as we've seen in the past, regime change is a very complicated business. It sometimes takes a long time. Sometimes it can happen very fast, but it was never part of the military mission."
Clinton emphasized the humanitarian rationale for the U.S. military intervention in Libya, recalling instances from recent history when a lack of U.S. intervention had left hundreds of thousands dead.
Clinton said that the United Nations-backed military intervention in Libya "is a watershed moment in international decision making. We learned a lot in the 1990s. We saw what happened in Rwanda. It took a long time in the Balkans, in Kosovo to deal with a tyrant. But I think in what has happened since March 1st, and we're not even done with the month, demonstrates really remarkable leadership."
Clinton played out a hypothetical of what non-intervention by the United States might have looked like.
"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?" she said
"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," Clinton told Tapper.
In an interview on "This Week" in December, 2007, Clinton told George Stephanopoulos that she urged President Clinton to intervene in Rwanda during the 1994 genocide there.
Then-Senator Clinton said, "I believe that our government failed. … I think that for me it was one of the most poignant and difficult experiences when I met with Rwandan refugees in Kampala, Uganda, shortly after the genocide ended and I personally apologized to women whose arms had been hacked off who had seen their husbands and children murdered before their very eyes and were at the bottom of piles of bodies, and then when I was able to go to Rwanda and be part of expressing our deep regrets because we didn't speak out adequately enough and we certainly didn't take action."