President Barack Obama walked into the White House Situation Room on March 15, concerned that Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi was crushing his country’s rebellion and seeking ways to stop him from killing his people.
By yesterday, the U.S. military and the U.K. were raining more than 124 Tomahawk cruise missiles on Libyan air defenses. While Obama had declared on March 8 that Qaddafi must go, he was reluctant to back up his words with U.S. military might until other nations stepped up and the United Nations Security Council authorized the use of “all necessary measures” to protect Libyan civilians.
During the 96 hours after Obama entered the Situation Room that day, his reluctance evaporated. The Libyan dictator vowed to destroy opposition “rats,” the Arab League pledged to help enforce the no-fly zone it endorsed days earlier and countries opposed to the military intervention -- Russia and China -- agreed to put aside objections. Finally, European leaders agreed to take the lead with the U.S. playing a supporting role.
When the president announced March 19 that U.S. military action “has now begun,” he also was unveiling the outlines of an emerging foreign policy in which the U.S. stood ready to participate in, but have others lead, a multinational military response to a humanitarian crisis when Americans didn’t have an overriding national security interest.
“We are answering the calls of a threatened people,” Obama said during his visit to Brazil over the weekend. “And we are acting in the interests of the United States and the world.”
Limits to U.S. Role
Even so, Obama made clear there were limits to U.S. involvement: No troops on the ground and, after helping at the onset, the U.S. would leave enforcement of the no-fly zone to allies, including Arab nations.
He was contending with two factions among his top advisers -- one based at the Pentagon and the State Department, arguing that stability in the region had long served U.S. interests, and another National Security Council and UN-based team focusing on human rights and the avoidance of another massacre like Rwanda’s.
The trigger for action came a few days before Obama entered the Situation Room on March 15, when the Arab League called for a no-fly zone over Libya, according to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. “It changed the diplomatic landscape,” she said.
This account is based on interviews with administration officials and outside experts consulted by the White House and the State Department during deliberations over a no-fly zone.
Meeting in Paris
As Obama settled in for his 4 p.m. meeting, Clinton called on a secure line from Paris, where she had attended a Group of Eight meeting on Libya and then held talks with Mahmood Jibril, the foreign affairs representative of the Libyan opposition council.
Clinton outlined her meeting with United Arab Emirates Foreign Minister Abdullah Bin Zayed Al-Nahyan and described how Arab countries in the Persian Gulf were committing to help enforce the no-fly zone. She also shared details from her 45-minute meeting with Jibril, in which they talked about how to use the growing anti-Qaddafi momentum in the Arab world, said a U.S. official.
Obama told his advisers he wanted to see additional diplomatic and military options to pressure Qaddafi, then left to have dinner with military veterans. While Obama ate, national security adviser Thomas Donilon and his deputy, Denis McDonough, put staffers to work analyzing three scenarios, according to administration officials who described the deliberations under ground rules that they not be identified.
One scenario focused on a combination of military efforts, broad humanitarian efforts and a no-fly zone; the second focused on a no-fly zone and humanitarian aid; the third looked at possible outcomes of a purely humanitarian response. Donilon wrote the analyses in longhand to be typed up for the president at a second meeting.
Two camps vied for the president’s ear, as they had since a wave of democratic stirrings had broken over the North African region. One was composed of officials, mostly at the Pentagon and the State Department, who argued that stability in the Mideast and North Africa had served the U.S. for decades.
They were opposed by a cadre of former academics, journalists and Clinton administration advisers who insisted the U.S. could not allow a repeat of the 1990s genocidal slaughter in Rwanda and the Balkans. This group includes National Security Council staff members Gayle Smith and Samantha Power, advocates on human right issues, and U.S. Ambassador to the UN Susan Rice, who was President Bill Clinton’s Africa adviser during the 1994 Rwanda genocide in which 800,000 people were killed in three months.
Other administration figures were concerned about the effectiveness of a no-fly zone and differences within NATO over what Defense Secretary Robert Gates warned would be a “big operation.”
As in the debate over Egypt’s popular uprising, the president cast his lot with those who favored intervention.
“My sense is that two key events changed the president’s thinking,” said Cliff Kupchan, a senior analyst at the Eurasia Group, a New York political-risk consulting firm, in an interview. The first was Arab League support; the second was Qaddafi closing in on the civilian population of Benghazi, the rebel capital, he said. “This administration simply decided they couldn’t watch another Srebrenica, couldn’t watch another Rwanda.”
Leaning Toward Involvement
When Obama returned to the Situation Room at 9:15 p.m., he was leaning toward increased military and diplomatic involvement. He met with Donilon, McDonough, Gates, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Admiral Michael Mullen, Rice and NSC adviser Ben Rhodes.
They went through all the options, including how much they would cost and how to build the biggest possible coalition.
As they finished at about 11 p.m., Obama told Rice to ask the UN Security Council to support the use of “all necessary measures.” He then ordered Donilon to have the Pentagon draw up specific military plans.
The next day, pro-Qaddafi forces attacked Ajdabiya, a city about 100 miles from Benghazi, with airstrikes and artillery. As Qaddafi’s forces advanced, newspaper headlines worldwide reported on the G8 failure the day before to agree on a no-fly zone. Russia had refused to sign on, and Germany raised objections.
Failure to Act
As criticism grew about the U.S. failure to act, Rice said in New York that the situation in Libya had deteriorated to the point that military actions beyond a no-fly zone were needed. A Feb. 26 UN resolution that imposed an arms embargo, travel ban and freeze on Qaddafi family assets had to be expanded, she said.
In Egypt, Clinton told a CBS interviewer that the U.S. wouldn’t act without a UN resolution because that “would fly in the face of the international community.”
The delay, she said, reflected a recognition that whatever was decided in the Security Council must include formal Arab leadership and participation.
That day in Washington, Mullen hand-delivered a copy of the Pentagon’s military plans to Donilon for review.
On March 17, Qaddafi’s warplanes bombed the Benghazi airport, bringing the war to the opposition capital for the first time since loyalist forces were driven out in February.
Qaddafi’s son, Saif al-Islam, scoffed at the Security Council discussions about a no-fly zone. “It’s too late,” he said in an interview with EuroNews television, according to a transcript. “In 48 hours, we will have finished our military operation. We are at the gates of Benghazi.”
At 4 p.m. that day, Obama held the meeting where he decided what he wanted to do, officials said.
Obama met with the principals on his national security team to work through operational plans. The stakes of not acting were clear to him -- the Arab world could think the U.S. and the West had sold out. It would be the worst possible message to regional leaders who thought Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak should have fired on protesters in Tahrir Square.
Still, the American president wanted U.S. military involvement to be a matter of days, not weeks.
Because he felt that a show of international unity was important, Obama stepped back so that French President Nicolas Sarkozy and British Prime Minister David Cameron could speak out on a no-fly zone.
Behind the scenes, administration officials said, the U.S. took a leadership role through phone calls, often between Obama and other leaders.
That night the UN passed Resolution 1973, allowing member nations to arm the rebels, enforce the no-fly zone and do whatever else was necessary to protect civilians.
Russia abstained, dissuaded from a veto by the Arab League’s endorsement of a no-fly zone and commitment to help enforce it, according to a European diplomat. Germany also abstained and China followed suit, unwilling to be the sole dissenting vote, the diplomat said.
A second European diplomat said that, while UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s efforts helped enormously, “what made the real difference here were the Americans.”
Obama’s attitude was critical to the UN vote, the diplomat said. The president was a lot more sensitive to what other nations think and feel than his predecessor, President George W. Bush, was, and that was how the U.S. got Security Council members to abstain instead of voting no, the diplomat said.
On March 18, Obama addressed the nation from the White House. Qaddafi’s brutal repression could result in the deaths of thousands, he said, and the U.S. was working on a strong response with allies.
At 7 a.m. March 19, Donilon briefed Obama, who had arrived in Brazil, the first stop on a visit to South American and Central American nations. Libyan forces were still marching on Benghazi. At noon, Donilon convened a secure call with Obama, Gates, Mullen, McDonough and Clinton, who told them about diplomatic efforts at a crisis meeting in Paris hosted by Sarkozy. After lunch, Obama started to work on a statement.
From Paris, Clinton told reporters that, while there may be talk of a cease-fire in the Libyan capital of Tripoli, “the reality on the ground tells a very different story.”
As she spoke after the meeting with Sarkozy and other leaders, French planes were already in the air over Libya. By 4 p.m., U.S. and coalition aircraft had begun Operation Odyssey Dawn.
‘Limited Military Action’
Minutes later, the president stepped up to microphones in a Brazil convention center.
“Good afternoon, everybody,” Obama said. “Today, I authorized the armed forces of the United States to begin a limited military action in Libya in support of an international effort to protect Libyan civilians.”
“That action has now begun,” he said.
Mullen, making the rounds of the Washington Sunday talk shows, said Qaddafi’s air defenses have been taken out and a no-fly zone established. The U.S. will pass the leadership of the mission to coalition members in a few days, he said.
There is “still a great deal to be done” in Libya, Mullen said on CNN. The goal now, he said on ABC’s “This Week,” is “to support the UN objectives of no humanitarian crisis and humanitarian support, protecting Libyan civilians.”