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JOHN KING, USA

Obama Urges Gadhafi To Step Down; No-Fly Zone; Arming the Rebels?

Aired March 3, 2011 - 19:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


JOHN KING, CNN ANCHOR: Thanks Wolf and good evening everyone. Tonight bloody stalemate in Libya and the debate over what comes next is complicated by disagreements over whether and how outside military force could be used to remove Moammar Gadhafi from power. At the moment though Libya is a tale of two countries, and an uncertain tale at that.

Rebel forces have control here in the eastern areas near Algeria (ph) and al-Brega, right here, that despite another day of bombing runs by the Libyan Air Force targeting its own citizens. And Colonel Gadhafi remains in control of the capital of Tripoli to the west here, where residents describe a climate of constant fear and intimidation, so much that if you take a look at this picture we are still told that the rate of about 15,000 a day, refugees are going across the border.

Not Libyans yet. Most of the refugees are foreign workers. But they are leaving because of the climate. And you see here, Ras Ajir ((ph) -- this is the border with Tunisia. They are leaving from Libya going across into Tunisia. Still at the rate, we are told of about 15,000 a day. At the White House today President Obama conceded he is worried a long stalemate could be bloody and says the administration is considering a list of humanitarian and military options, but caution is the watch word for the administration's response, though the president did say Libya's dictator could end this crisis immediately.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Colonel Gadhafi needs to step down from power and leave. That is good for his country. It is good for his people. It's the right thing to do.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: But with the White House still reluctant to use military assets to impose a no-fly zone over Libya, criticism that the president is being too timid is mounting.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. JOSEPH LIEBERMAN (I), CONNECTICUT: We believe Gadhafi has to go. But we have to do more than just say that.

(END VIDEO CLIP) KING: That's Senator Joe Lieberman there. More on the military options in a moment, but first let's get straight to the ground in Tripoli. Our senior international correspondent Nic Robertson is there. And Nic, you were out and about today seeing very important and dramatic changes to the security situation.

NIC ROBERTSON, CNN SR. INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: John, we've just driven back into the city. We've been out all day and have come back in from the west. We've been all the way to the Tunisian border along the highway there, but it's when you get back to the capital here and some of the contested areas, half an hour, 40 minutes drive from the capital, you really begin to see how much security has been stepped up here.

We were passing checkpoint after checkpoint on the wing (ph) road around the city here. These checkpoints are being manned by soldiers with their (ph) fixed on their weapons. These are professional looking soldiers in the proper uniforms, with standard issued weapons. Not only that -- not only them at their checkpoints but heavy artillery pieces, two heavy artillery pieces at each checkpoint -- one checkpoint had four tanks on it.

The security level we're seeing tonight appears to being stepped up in advance of expected protests on Friday. People, anti-government protesters have said they will try to use the Friday prayers at noon to stake protests because they say the mosques are the only place they really feel safe, and it seems that the government is really ringing the city in steel to try and make sure no rebels get in from the outside and that they contain whatever happens inside the city -- John.

KING: And Nic, you said you were out of the city taking a tour. You went over to the Tunisian border. Describe what it's like as you leave Tripoli and head out to the west here. Here's Tripoli -- I'm showing people on the map -- out toward the border of Tunisia. How does it -- how does the terrain change, the climate change, the security situation change as you make that move?

ROBERTSON: You know this is -- some people describe it as the sort of golden (INAUDIBLE) and there are six million or so people that live in Libya there, a large percentage, including Tripoli, live along the coast of the border there. It's an economic heartland. It has got oil refineries. It's -- there's a lot of agricultural production in that area as well.

As you leave Tripoli, you pass those checkpoints of ring (ph) of steel on the (INAUDIBLE) on the outskirts. Then when you get close -- then when you get close to where the oil refining town -- now interestingly we didn't go through the center of that town this time rather than the last time when government officials took us into the center of the town and we met rebels, armed rebels.

This time they drove us around the town to the oil refinery. The oil refinery appears to be working correctly. Officials told us it hadn't been attacked even (INAUDIBLE) few miles from the rebels. We drove on to the next town (INAUDIBLE). We drove through the middle of that town, anti-Gadhafi graffiti being cleaned off the walls as we drove through.

And then the next town a different story again -- we did a loop around that town, diverting around it. That's the town rebels say that control. And on that diversion almost every few hundred yards there were checkpoints manned by civilians with weapons. Getting to the border we passed well over 30 checkpoints from the city here -- John.

KING: Nic Robertson for us tonight live in Tripoli -- a dramatic day there. Nic we'll stay in touch. Thank you very much. And again in a moment we'll map out some of the military options people are considering that the president so much -- has so much caution about.

But first let's zoom in on this area right here, al-Brega here, Ajdabiya (ph) here. This area here under rebel control at the moment, but this is growing into a very tense and unpredictable civil war.

The Libyan military continued bombing runs in the eastern part of the country today targeting the towns of al-Brega and Ajdabiya (ph). We find our Ben Wedeman in eastern Libya and Ben, as these attacks play out, tell us the impact of this -- having. Is it taking a toll on the opposition forces or is it rallying them to do more?

BEN WEDEMAN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: If anything it's rallying them to do more. What we've seen is that throughout the day after these early morning air raids, the opposition forces are increasing in number and increasing in the kind of weaponry they're deploying on the front lines. We were at the main checkpoint in Brega, and we saw that they have a lot more weaponry. They have anti- tank guns, anti-aircraft guns.

They even have shoulder launched surface-to-air missiles that are all deployed around Brega. More and more volunteer fighters coming and there even seems to be a little better organization in terms of command and control, which is something we didn't see yesterday during the day long battle, which was very chaotic, but despite that, they won. The air raids have really enraged people because of course there's a sort of this visceral anger at Moammar Gadhafi for the fact that he is using the Libyan Air Force against his own people.

So what we're seeing is, in fact it looks like preparations to start taking the battle forward. There are -- rebels are talking to us about trying to take the town of (INAUDIBLE) which is where another of these key petroleum facilities, refineries and export facilities is. And they're saying if they can take that they may move on to Sert (ph), which of course is the hometown of Moammar Gadhafi -- John.

KING: And yet, Ben, if they carry out those ambitious plans and start to move toward Tripoli and take those two key towns their vulnerability would be from the skies above. Is there a frustration that the international community keeps talking about the possibility of a no-fly zone but is unwilling at this point to take that step?

WEDEMAN: Well you know there are a lot of sort of different opinions about any sort of foreign intervention. They -- many Libyans say they definitely will not accept foreign forces on the ground. They're not altogether enthusiastic about the idea of air strikes. But one thing everyone in the opposition agrees upon is that they really need this no-fly zone to be imposed because despite their appearance of growing strength, growing confidence, the opposition forces realize that their Achilles heel is the fact they have no air cover.

That they are exposed to these Libyan Air Force jets, which can hit at will. Until now they've either been just unlucky in terms of the targeting. There haven't been a lot of casualties from the bomb themselves, but that could easily change just with one incident. So just to stress again, the one thing the opposition seems to agree on is that they need that no-fly zone imposed as quickly as possible -- John.

KING: Ben Wedeman continuing his fabulous reporting for us in eastern Libya -- Ben thank you.

And so why is the president and the Pentagon reluctant to impose that fly zone? What would it take? Joining me here at the "Magic Wall" for some perspective, retired U.S. Army General George Joulwan and former NATO Supreme Allied Commander -- and General, you imposed a no-fly zone during the Bosnia conflict. When you look at the map here -- I want to start with what Ben Wedeman was just talking about.

And I want to look at some of the weapons the Libyan Air Force has because these guys are worried right now, the rebels out there, that they're being struck by Air Force planes. And they want a no-fly zone. And they want the United States and its allies to take out this anti-aircraft, essentially to take out the Air Force and to take out anti-aircraft. What's important about this?

GEN. GEORGE JOULWAN, U.S. ARMY (RET.): Well first of all, I think you have to make sure you understand there's an extensive anti- aircraft belt of missiles and anti-aircraft weapons along both sides of the Gulf of Sidra (ph) and to take it out it's going to take a very coordinated, well disciplined and a large NATO or U.S. force to be able to do that.

KING: And no way to have a no-fly zone to keep those pilots safe --

(CROSSTALK)

KING: -- unless you take --

(CROSSTALK)

JOULWAN: -- all that out and that's going to require jammers, as we call them. It's going to require all kinds of other support aircraft to do it.

KING: Here's why they want that taken out. Because what is being used against -- you have Mirage fighter jets and these are Russian fighter jets being used against the rebels. How do you ground these? JOULWAN: Well part of that is to take the aircraft out as well from the air field. Now when you do that those are acts of war and we have to understand that and it's going to take I think a coordinated effort, if it's going to happen at all, with NATO and other nations cooperating to make this happen. But it is not an easy task and you need to know what you're going in for before you go in.

KING: Well you mentioned you need to know what you're going in for before you get in. I want to close this down because I want to come back to the map here and I want to just show some of the weapons that have come in from the United States -- I'm sorry -- wrong one -- (INAUDIBLE) close this down -- some of the things that have come in from the United States.

You say you need a lot. The "Kearsarge" has passed through Suez Canal. It is now up here in the Med. These are other assets up in the Med, but mostly smaller ships, command-and-control ships, one carrier group waiting in the Suez Canal. You can do some no-fly zone off a carrier, but you would have to instead if you want to do it aggressively, you would have to use probably the same places you were back in -- I'm going to come out to this other map -- you would probably use the same places you used during Bosnia -- correct?

JOULWAN: That's right.

(CROSSTALK)

KING: NATO bases in Italy.

JOULWAN: NATO bases in Italy and this here is the southernmost base. We have U.S. air base in Aviano (ph) and the Italians let us use all their bases really to support what we did in the no-fly zone in Bosnia.

KING: So if you were in your current position at NATO right now --

JOULWAN: Yes.

KING: -- and the White House called -- the defense secretary called and they said, General, can we do this? I assume the answer is yes to can. What about should?

JOULWAN: You can do it but you need to have what is the clarity of mission for this operation? Is it to eliminate the anti-aircraft? Is it to get the people out? Are you willing to take the risk it involves if something goes wrong? You get a plane shot down, et cetera, et cetera. There are other parts of this that need to be examined, the rules of engagement, et cetera before you go in, John.

KING: Right and when you look here at things Gadhafi has including a mustard gas factor right here, can you take that out from above or would you have to do in -- if you were worried that Gadhafi in a blaze of destruction at the end was going to use mustard gas against his own people, how do you take this out? Can you bomb this -- (CROSSTALK)

KING: -- or is that dangerous?

JOULWAN: It's dangerous to do it. As you know, there are ways to send in Special Forces or troops like that to take it out that are trained to do that. But we're talking about a level of escalation here that I think you need to be able to understand to have some clarity in terms of the mission, the rules of engagement, the chain of command you're going to have, and all of that needs to be decided before you start putting in a no-fly zone.

KING: And do you get any sense that the world is at that point yet --

JOULWAN: There's a lot of rhetoric, but I'm not really sure the world is ready to do that. It's going to take the U.N. to pass a resolution, I think. It's going to take NATO to act. And it's going to take the U.S. to lead.

KING: Is it worth it in your view? Have we reached a point where it's worth it in your view?

JOULWAN: I would not -- I would continue to watch the situation and put diplomatic and political and economic and other pressure on Gadhafi and get his neighbors and other Arab states, particularly the Saudis, to put some pressure on him to really say it's time to go.

KING: And if that doesn't happen, is this enough --

JOULWAN: No.

(CROSSTALK)

JOULWAN: It's not enough.

KING: More -- you'd have to deploy more at a time? The United States is deployed heavily in Iraq, coming out of Iraq, but still a significant number in Iraq, heavily in Afghanistan, not enough in the neighborhood yet.

JOULWAN: Not yet and I think you know we always do the what-ifs about would this lead -- if it doesn't work, a sanctuary, a ground force to go in to try to get a safe area to get people out. There are Marines aboard, as you know, the "Kearsarge". I've used the "Kearsarge". They're very familiar with this area. There are Marines, 800 of them. Is that enough? I'm not sure. So it's going to take a lot of planning and a lot of political will if you're going to do this operation.

KING: General Joulwan, I appreciate your time and your insights and your expertise.

JOULWAN: Thank you.

KING: And when we come back we'll talk to a leading voice on Capitol Hill. Jim Webb is a Democratic senator. He's a member of the Foreign Relations Committee. He's also a former Navy secretary. We'll talk to him about military, diplomatic options and this time of great uncertainty in Libya. Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KING: President Obama was clear today in declaring Libyan Leader Moammar Gadhafi should immediately yield power. But he was cautious when pressed on whether the United States should use military force to help bring about regime change in Libya. One reason the president is hesitant, he knows any U.S. military intervention in Libya could cause a backlash in the Arab and Muslim world and the president held out Egypt as a powerful example.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

OBAMA: And we did not see anti-American sentiment arising out of that movement in Egypt, precisely because they felt that we hadn't tried to engineer or impose a particular outcome. But rather they owned it.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: But more hawkish voices in the Congress say the United States needs to do more to tip the scales in favor of the opposition forces trying to end Gadhafi's more than 40 years in power.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

LIEBERMAN: I think we should be open to providing what them with arms if they need it to succeed in their revolution.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: Let's get the perspective from a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee whose resume also includes military service and a stint as secretary of the Navy. Senator Jim Webb of Virginia is with us from Capitol Hill.

Senator, let me start right there. Who is right? The president with his cautious approach at the moment or Senator Lieberman and others who say let's have a no-fly zone? Let's perhaps start arming the opposition.

SEN. JIM WEBB (D), VIRGINIA: Well, I think it's even more complicated than that. This is a region that is known for divisions within divisions. And you can't even take the Egyptian template, which the president mentioned, and apply it to the situation that we see in Libya. In Egypt we had long relationships with people that we were talking to who were inside the opposition movement.

We had good talks with the military people. There was a stability in our relationship. I asked Secretary Clinton yesterday when she was testifying before the Foreign Relations Committee if we had any idea really who these people would be if we were to take that step. And she basically said we don't know these people. So we're in a situation where we've got a long history in this region of making mistakes in supporting opposition movements or in tilting one way or the other when the results come out in a way we really wouldn't like to see them. So who would we be giving arms to in Libya? There are so many different factions that are in this opposition movement. And since we don't know them, what we need to do is work very hard with other countries and other actors who do know them so we can get a better picture of what's going on there.

KING: But as we wait to get a better picture people are dying, of course and I guess the question is at what point does legitimate caution, legitimate fact finding, legitimate consultation and diplomacy end up looking like it's indecision?

WEBB: You know I think in this region it -- you've got to be really careful when you make a decision. I was in Beirut as a journalist in 1983 and I saw with my own eyes what happens when you get involved in a five-sided argument and particularly when you pick one side in a five-sided argument. I was secretary of the Navy during the Iran/Iraq war in 1987 when the Reagan administration tilted toward Iraq with very unfortunate circumstances four years later when we went to war against Iraq.

And I think I was the only member of the Reagan administration who opposed the tilt to Iraq in writing in a memo to Secretary Weinberger (ph). So you have to be extremely careful when you take action. Particularly when you're providing military support to opposition movements that you don't even know. I think it's appropriate for us to offer humanitarian assistance and to keep working with other countries and other elements to try to get a better picture of what's really going on inside Libya.

KING: And so at the moment, would you do anything different from the administration or in your view do they have it about right?

WEBB: There's been a little bit -- seems to me there's been a little bit of a disagreement or certainly strong discussion within the administration about what to do. But I think Secretary Gates has had the right position when it comes to the potential use of the military in Libya. And we got to slow down a little bit here.

I think that what we've seen over the past couple of months in terms of the situation in Egypt, the situation in Tunisia has given Americans the perspective that you get a crowd on the street and they protest regimes that we don't particularly like and then we immediately decide that, that regime is going to go and that when it doesn't, there's something wrong. But this is a very, very precarious situation in Libya and we need to be careful.

KING: And yet the president is on the record saying regime change must happen. That is now a credibility test, is it not?

WEBB: Well, even in Egypt as we move forward, there were times when some including myself were saying you need to be careful in saying what should happen as opposed to what we believe should happen, and the situation in Libya is even more so in that category. We need to identify the players.

If the opposition movement were to come forward with an opposition government that our State Department felt comfortable dealing with it would be different. But for the moment you know we need to be careful before we literally pull the trigger in any action inside Libya.

KING: And so there are some like Senator Lieberman who seems to be suggesting the president is being too timid. It seems to me that by even saying that the only good result for him is regime change, you think the president is perhaps too far out on the limb already?

WEBB: Well just remember there are -- people are -- you know there are different historical examples you can pull from. But one of the most graphic examples of when we got a little ahead of ourselves is when we traded the Shah of Iran for the Ayatollah Khomeini (ph). And so you know I think that people who are saying we should use military force or provide weapons to an opposition movement simply because we don't like the present leadership in Libya need to be -- need to ask themselves who you're giving the weapons to and what is their future role if Gadhafi leaves?

KING: Senator Jim Webb of Virginia -- appreciate you insight, sir.

WEBB: Good to be with you.

KING: Thank you. And still ahead here, Newt Gingrich makes it official. He's exploring a 2012 presidential campaign. Is this controversial figure from the Republican Party's past a good fit to lead it into the future and next Fareed Zakaria on the changing map of the Middle East in North Africa and the dangers of decision making at such unpredictable moments.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KING: A very cautious tone from President Obama today at a White House event, in which he took a couple of questions about Libya. The president said he's asked his national security team for a full list of options some for humanitarian purposes, some military contingencies. But the president said he's not ready to impose a no- fly zone over Libya. He says he needs more consultations with allies, wants to see how the situation develops, but he did acknowledge this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

OBAMA: You are right that there is a danger of a stalemate that over time could be bloody. And that is something that we're obviously considering.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: Let's bring CNN's Fareed Zakaria into the conversation. Fareed, you hear from the president today, and yes, he said on camera for the first time Gadhafi must go. But otherwise it was almost treading water. The president still says options are on the table. We're thinking about this. We're talking to our colleagues. I'm not saying it's easy. But at what point does all of this caution translate perhaps into indecision and as some are starting to say, American weakness?

FAREED ZAKARIA, CNN'S FAREED ZAKARIA GPS: I don't think so. I think the president is quite right to be somewhat cautious about a military option. It's a pretty complicated option. Not just militarily. I mean I understand that getting rid of Libyan air defenses is not a huge undertaking. But politically you are after all engaging in a military intervention in an Arab country, in a Muslim country.

This will be number three in 10 years. And it hands Gadhafi certainly a very powerful weapon which is to say that he is now resisting American aggression. So figuring out what the right thing to do is I think makes a lot of sense. The president is being pretty clearly though.

He said Gadhafi must go and the violence must stop. Now he's going to have to make good on those. He'll look awfully foolish if he isn't able to translate those demands, those declarations in some ways, so I think he has in effect drawn a line in the sand. The United States is going to do something to change the balance of power between Gadhafi and the rebels. But what precisely is not clear yet.

KING: And the "what precisely" is what gets so difficult. The president also tried to send a signal seems to know Gadhafi won't budge and that sanctions aren't going to sway Gadhafi, but he talked today about those around him must know they are being watched. The international criminal court also said those around Gadhafi should know they will be investigated for any atrocities or crimes against their own citizens. Could that send a signal if not to Gadhafi and if not to his sons, is there a next loop in the circle, if you will, that could change the dynamics within Libya?

ZAKARIA: You know unfortunately Libya is such a non- institutionalized state -- that is to say you don't have a big army with lots of generals and things. The way it runs is there's been a bunch of tribes. The tribes close to Gadhafi are the ones that are supporting him now. There is a power (ph) military organization, which really is commanded by his sons, his three sons, the three divisions.

So, I don't know if you're going to find a lot of cracks in that facade. But I do think it's worth of going down the path of maybe indictments of war crimes. Look, there are armed supplies that can be opened up to the rebel forces. There are kinds of humanitarian interventions that can be engaged in.

I think, here's how I would put it, John -- in the long run, Gadhafi is doomed. He cannot survive completely isolated when the Arab League has turned against him. But in the short run, he has huge military advantages over the rebels.

So, what we're trying to do here, I think what the White House is trying to do is figure out how do you blunt those short-term military advantages while maintaining the pressure that makes in the long run the outcome of this preordained. Gadhafi is not going to be running Libya five years from now or even two years from now. The question is: two weeks for now and a month from now, what do you do to make sure he doesn't slaughter civilians in the process?

KING: And as we watch for that and that is obviously an urgent priority, when we were having this conversation about Mubarak, we had a good sense of the Egyptian military, which has a long standing relationship with the United States and with other governments, including the Israeli government, that the Egyptian military would play a key role post-Mubarak.

When you look at Libya, you just made the critical point. There are no institutions. There's no opposition to Gadhafi that is organized.

If Gadhafi falls, I was just talking to Senator Jim Webb about this. He says his big concern is what's next? We don't know any of these people inside Libya.

ZAKARIA: I think that's true. I think it's also fair to say that it can't be much worse than Moammar Gadhafi who ran one of the most repressive states in the world. You know, Freedom House has these rankings, and Libya was right up there tied with North Korea, I think, for the worst, most repressive government in the world.

Look, what's likely to happen is Benghazi and the area around it, which has always historically been kind of almost a different country, will have its own center of authority and center of governance. Tripoli will remain loyal for now to Gadhafi. And in a post-Gadhafi scenario, it will probably be somebody from his clan, perhaps a former general. And there will be some kind of negotiation about even a confederation.

But I don't think we should be so stuck on worrying about this. I remember when Suharto fell in Indonesia during the Clinton administration, '98 I think it was, everybody said this place won't hold together. You know, it was a Dutch invention. Indonesia didn't exist before the Dutch came and colonized it.

You know, we're in a modern world. People -- you know, countries don't always fall apart so easily. There are also forces of integration that keep it together.

So, let's not think of every worst-case scenario when we are dealing with, as I say, one of the two, three most repressive regimes in the world. Whatever happens will be better than Gadhafi.

KING: It's nice to have an optimist in the conversation. That is a good take. Let me close by asking you this. And again, we talk about this quite a bit during Egypt, that the whole neighborhood was watching. And it's a complicated neighborhood, perhaps the most volatile neighborhood in the world.

As this plays out, what is being said by governments friendly and not so friendly in the region about how the United States and the world so far are handling Libya?

ZAKARIA: I think that's a crucial point, John, because that's one of the reasons to be cautious military options. It's one thing to support democracy. It's one thing to support the people. You know, it's one thing to try and put as much pressure as you can on Libya.

But if the United States starts militarily intervening in order to do regime change, it is going to unsettle the other countries. And, look, it would be nice if we could say, well, it doesn't matter. But, you know, it does matter. If Saudi Arabia doesn't cooperate with us on the war in terror, with you know, battles against al Qaeda, funding of al Qaeda, if it doesn't cooperate with us frankly on the pumping of oil around the world. That makes a big difference to America's prosperity, its wellbeing, and the course of liberty and democracy in the word.

These are balancing objectives here. And everyone is -- Libya is different from all the others because you have -- you know, the government is -- the regime is trying to stay in power with force. It's an oil country. So, they have money. And as a result, a lot of the other oil rich countries are probably looking at it carefully.

For all those reasons, as I say, I'm not ready to say that President Obama is being foolish to be somewhat measured and cautious. He has come out very clearly against Gadhafi. He's come out very clearly saying the violence must stop. And I think, you know, giving him a week or two to figure out exactly what the most effective methods are is better than going in guns blazing.

Once you start -- once you start a military intervention, as I think we have learned over the last decade, that becomes a very, very big undertaking and should not be undertaken lightly.

KING: Excellent point to close on. Fareed Zakaria, as always, thanks.

ZAKARIA: A pleasure, John.

KING: And don't miss Fareed's special program "Restoring the American Dream: Getting Back to Number One." That's Sunday night at 8:00 p.m. in the East.

When we come back, more on the Libya crisis ahead.

But immediately, spicy politics, Newt Gingrich confirms the world's worst kept secret, he's thinking about running for president. And Mike Huckabee stirs a feisty new debate by saying that young Barack Obama was shaped by his time at a madrassa.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KING: Welcome back.

If you're just joining us, here's the latest news you need to know right now. During a White House news conference with the Mexican President Felipe Calderon today, President Obama declared, quote, I believe in the Second Amendment. But he went on to say the government also needs to do more to stop the flow of U.S. guns to Mexico's drug gangs.

This afternoon, the president phoned the crews in the International Space Station and the space shuttle Discovery. He passed along a message to Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords' brother- in-law, the astronaut Scott Kelly, whose twin brother Mark is Giffords' husband.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

OBAMA (via telephone): Scott, I talked to Mark a couple of days ago, it sounds like Gabby is making incredible progress. And, you know, we're thrilled for that.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: Newt Gingrich says he's beginning an exploratory phase about a possible campaign for president. The former speaker announced the new Web site today, but he has not yet officially formed a presidential exploratory committee.

Joining us now, the "TIME" magazine's veteran political columnist, Joe Klein. His column in the latest issue, "Who's Afraid of Reforming Wall Street," right there -- in the new issue of "TIME" right there.

And, Joe, we both covered a few campaigns. So, we both covered Newt Gingrich over the years. I want to talk about the pros and cons of a Newt for president. But, first, let's listen to just a little bit of a snippet today of Newt explaining why he's going to the exploratory phase.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

NEWT GINGRICH (R), FORMER HOUSE SPEAKER: We believe that America's best years are actually ahead of us. We believe that it is possible through the right policies with the right values to create dramatically more jobs with dramatically higher incomes. We believe that it is possible to reestablish American exceptionalism as the core value of this country that has made us so unique and as attracted people from all over the world.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: He got the name ID. We know he can raise money.

So, do we need to take him seriously?

JOE KLEIN, POLITICAL COLUMNIST, TIME MAGAZINE: Sort of. I mean, you know, Newt -- I've known Newt for a long time. He's one of the smartest in terms of sheer I.Q. candle power, one of the smartest people I've ever met. And he's also one of the stupidest people I ever met. You know, the smart come part comes in his consideration of policy. This is a guy who is a really policy wonk. He comes up with very, very creative ideas. He's great at policy.

When it comes to politics, though, he tends to get angry and say stupid things and make a fool of himself sometimes. So, you know, can he last two whole years out on the campaign trail without getting angry and being foolish? I don't know.

KING: It's a fascinating point because if he's going to run, you're going into Iowa or you're going to New Hampshire, we have a lot of candidate forums. So, you're around two, four, sometimes six or eight of the others running with you.

For anyone out there who hasn't tracked the career of the former speaker -- let's just run through his history real quick. Newt Gingrich was -- he's a Republican congressman from Georgia, elected first in 1979, served for 20 years. He was the speaker of the House for five of those years, 1995 to 1999, a little more than four years. He was a FOX News political analyst, that deal was suspended yesterday. And a college professor as well.

And you heard, Joe, in that little snippet we played, Gingrich is one of the guys who talks about American exceptionalism, not only because he wants to make the point he thinks America is a unique country. It's part of their narrative against President Obama, that somehow the current Democratic president does not think America is the exceptional nation.

KLEIN: Boy is that the buzz word right now, John? I was at the CPAC convention a few ago, where you saw all the Republican candidates come and speak. And every last one of them, except Mitch Daniels, used the word "exceptionalism." Ron Paul might not have used it either.

And it's meant to be a code word for the fact that Barack Obama is this guy who really doesn't really that we're so terrific and goes around the world making apologies, which is a canard. It's not true. What they're leaping off of is this statement that Obama made a few years ago that I'm sure -- that I feel America is exceptional but I'm sure the Greeks feel that Greece is exceptional and the Brits feel that Britain is exceptional as well.

KING: And where do you put Newt Gingrich now in the context of a Republican field? You mentioned Mitch Daniels, Haley Barbour, Tim Pawlenty, Mitt Romney -- all governors or former governors there. We have some others, former Governor Palin, we're not sure about her next yet.

Put him in context of what we know how Republican primaries usually work. You have a social conservative, an economic conservative. Where does he fit?

KLEIN: Well, I think he's trying to be a little bit more social conservative and religious. But this is not a religious man. He's been married three times. Although, now, he's converted to Catholicism. He seems to have a strong marriage and he's making religious arguments.

He's more of the conservative ideologue. I always thought that he should be our national party ideologist because he comes up with 10 new ideas every day. Five of them are ridiculous, but there are one or two every day that really pretty good. And so, he's going to run in the end an intellectual campaign except for when he tries to start attacking people when he's going to get vicious.

KING: Well, we do know now that he's exploring. Joe gives us a chance, we could say, see you soon in Iowa.

KLEIN: Yes, I'll be there on Monday.

KING: You'll beat me out there by at least a few days. Joe Klein --

KLEIN: It's the first of those forums on Monday, John.

KING: I know. We'll be -- I'll be covering here. But maybe we'll check in with you out there. Joe Klein on his way.

KLEIN: Happy to do it.

KING: Good food and good politics. John, you take care.

We'll stay in touch with Joe. When we come back, more politics. Mike Huckabee, the former Arkansas governor, still a FOX News contributor. He has some issues with Barack Obama's childhood. It's interesting.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KING: Mike Huckabee's book tour -- well, it detoured into controversy this week. In a Monday radio interview, he talked about Barack Obama's perspective on the world being shaped by his growing up in Kenya. Well, that's a mistake. The president grew up in Hawaii and spent some time as a child in Indonesia.

Huckabee went on "THE O'REILLY FACTOR" on FOX News last night to sort of apologize. But you might say he made things worse.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MIKE HUCKABEE (R), FORMER ARKANSAS GOVERNOR: Well, honestly, it was about the 40th media interview of the day. You've done through these things. If I read through the own text, page 183 of my book, I clearly said he grew up in Indonesia. It was a verbal gaffe. I immediately apologize. But that's not enough for the left wing media.

BILL O'REILLY, FOX NEWS: No, no, and we're not --

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: Well, look at that. That's page 183. That's wrong, too. There's no mention of Indonesia on the page customer Huckabee cited.

But what people really noticed was this from yet another interview.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLILP)

HUCKABEE (via telephone): And I have said many times publicly that I do think he has a different world view, and I think it's in part molded out of a very different experience. Most of us grew up going to Boy Scout meetings and, you know, our communities were filled with Rotary Clubs, not madrassas.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: Let's talk with John Avlon, a CNN contributor and senior political columnist for thedailybeast.com; CNN political contributor and Democratic pollster Cornell Belcher; and former Bush-Cheney adviser, veteran Republican strategist, a lot of things and a good guy, Robert Traynham here in the room.

All right. So, Mr. Avlon, to you first -- in the sense that, you know, I understand Governor Huckabee's point about "I'm giving interview after interview after interview and sometimes you trip over your tongue." I do a lot of live television, guilty as charged. However, on this particular point, he keeps bringing up the president's childhood. He keeps distorting parts of the president's childhood. One has to assume he's a smart guy he's doing it on purpose.

JOHN AVLON, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: He absolutely is doing it on purpose. He had a chance to apologize, he did not. Instead, he doubled down on this vicious swell that's going on throughout the GOP, the idea that the president of the United States is somehow anti- American, doesn't understand America, is an alien when it comes to American values. And he has reinforced that message over and over.

Now, best-case scenario, he's just doing it to sell books. Worst-case scenario, it's a strategy to run for president, a deeply mistaken one. But his whole profile has also been this genial social conservative. There's nothing genial about playing to this worst instinct in the American electorate.

KING: And so, Robert, as someone who's worked for Republicans in campaigns, worked for Republicans on Capitol Hill, why? Why?

I mean, I guess I get it in the sense that politics is about math and maybe there's a small sliver of a pie out there that you think you can lock up with this. But that's a primary campaign and a primary strategy. I'm not sure it's even enough in the Republican primary. But if you got to win a general election in the United States of America, you can't sell that.

ROBERT TRAYNHAM, FORMER SENIOR ADVISER, BUSH-CHENEY CAMPAIGN: I totally agree with you. And let me just be very clear, I'm not a spokesperson obviously for Governor Huckabee.

I don't understand this. The reason why I don't understand this because time and time again, the president, along with Republicans and Democrats, have clearly said, look, this is a gentleman that was born in the state of Hawaii. This is a gentleman, as you mentioned a few minutes ago, that was obviously -- spent part of his time in Indonesia.

The only thing that I can think that maybe Governor Huckabee is trying to do he's trying to ignite -- which is not right -- he's trying to ignite social conservatives who simply do not believe the facts that President Obama is an American citizen.

KING: Is it one of the reasons, Cornell, they don't believe or they doubt or they question the facts, it's because there are people who are considered serious politicians who keep saying these things? And so, if you're out there and you think these things, you're getting reinforced by people who have the title of governor or something like that, who keep saying that?

CORNELL BELCHER, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: I mean, he's feeding to the base. I mean, the truth of the matter is -- and I think you also did a poll not too long ago, Republican primary poll --

KING: Ballpark of four in10 primary voters think that --

BELCHER: Doesn't think that he's an American. So, they're playing to the base. And this is sort of -- and it gets pretty ugly, but they're playing to the base. Look, if you're going to run for president and you're going to win a Republican primary, you're going to go through this tough Republican primaries and caucuses in states like South Carolina, you're going to have to swing far, far to the right, too far to the right quite frankly --

KING: I have flashbacks from this because we sent John Vause, our correspondent who's in Beijing at the time, we sent him to Indonesia to go to the school where Barack Obama went as a kid, to prove it was not -- he did go -- there you see it right there. And that it was not a religious school. It was not a radical Islamist school. That it was a pretty mainstream school.

But that was -- that's 2008. Are we going to go through this again?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes, we are.

TRAYNHAM: The unfortunate truth here is that Governor Huckabee's a man of the cloth. Governor Huckabee is someone who's a reverend, ordained minister. So, if, in fact, he's lying deliberately, that says something else.

KING: What's to be gained? He's been president for four years now or will be -- three years now and he will be president for four years at the end of the campaign.

So, you can run a campaign against President Obama or Senator Obama, go back to his Senate record, you can run a campaign if you want, criticize him on health care, criticize on his position on taxes, criticize -- you know, sum it up there, I'm not saying -- you could say he's a big government liberal, he's this, he's that. You could run a campaign on the issues against him. Why, why, why?

BELCHER: Because it's not strong a cultural style. I mean, look, the bottom line is, you know, cultural issues and value issues move Americans a lot more than these policy discussions that we have on -- every day --

(CROSSTALK)

KING: What if he's not running for president? Then what is he doing? Maybe he sees Newt and Santorum are gone from scene and he wants to become now a primo contributor at FOX?

AVLON: Well, look, you know -- I mean, you know, I suppose that's a good -- you know, strategy for that. You want it appeal to a narrow and intense audience using conflict, tension, fear and resentment, but that's no way to run for president. This is what happens when the fringe starts blurring with the base. And that kind of outer reaches pandering, the use of hate and fear to pump up hyperpartisanship is totally antithetical to the job of running for president which is all about uniting the nation to win a general election.

BELCHER: But there's a direct correlation between that and the rise of the Tea Party. And there's a direct correlation between the rise of the Tea Party and the election of and the first person who was not white.

TRAYNHAM: One thing we have to remember, it's two races to run for president. The primary race obviously in South Carolina and Iowa, as well as obviously New Hampshire. What I believe Governor Huckabee is doing is speaking specifically to those voters out there who believe that the president is not a legitimate citizen, which is wrong.

KING: If he's trying to speak to -- if you're going to speak to them, why don't you say, ladies and gentlemen, you may believe what you believe, but all of the evidence, the undeniable evidence is that he was born in Hawaii. He's an American citizen. Let's argue on taxes and spending and national security probably and something else -- why can't we do that?

BELCHER: Because they'll boo him off the stage, and those early Republican primaries, boo him off the stage. That's not who they are. No.

KING: All right. I got to stop this one tonight, unfortunately. There's a show that comes after me. We could take over their time, but they'd get mad. If we have to, we'll come back to this. I hope we don't have to come back to this particular issue.

John Avlon, Cornell Belcher, Robert Traynham, thanks for coming in.

When we come back, we're going to break down for you yet again the impact here at home. Libya crisis, what you pay at the pump and where we're going. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KING: We've been trying throughout the week to show the impact here at home of the crisis in Libya. Before we go tonight, let's take another look at how it affects you at the pump.

Oil trading for a second day in a row above $100 a barrel. If crude is trading above $100 a barrel, you know the price of gas at the pump is going up. And just look over the last the couple of weeks at this trend up, up, up, up.

Now, average -- on average, unleaded gas at the pump, $3.44. I can tell you it's higher than that here in Washington, D.C. But $3.44 is the average now, it depends on the gas tax where you live.

Some people now are starting to think through the scenario here. What if this volatility continues? What if crude stays above $100 a barrel or up in the ballpark? What will happen to the price of gas at the pump over the next five years?

Most believe or many believe anyway that if it stays around $100, what's going to happen? Ultimately, 5 bucks a gallon, maybe more at the pump.

There are some contrarians, though, who say, no, actually, maybe the United States would tap into the Strategic Petroleum Reserves, maybe people would change their behavior, take the subway more, ride the bus, or get a hybrid, some of the cars that gets better miles. Under that scenario, they think the price of gas could actually drop down over five years to $2.50 a gallon.

This a big policy debate here. Many people believe this. And as we showed last night, consumer confidence is dropping because of the fear of this.

We are a consumer-driven economy. People start spending less, that would put the economy more at risk.

More on that tomorrow when the government releases its latest unemployment report. We'll keep track of that story and the Libya political crisis. We'll see you then. That's all for us tonight, though.

"IN THE ARENA" starts right now.