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How Obama turned on a dime toward war

How Obama turned on a dime toward war

At the start of this week, the consensus around Washington was that military action against Libya was not in the cards. However, in the last several days, the White House completely altered its stance and successfully pushed for the authorization for military intervention against Libyan leader Col. Muammar al-Qaddafi. What changed?

The key decision was made by President Barack Obama himself at a Tuesday evening senior-level meeting at the White House, which was described by two administration officials as "extremely contentious." Inside that meeting, officials presented arguments both for and against attacking Libya. Obama ultimately sided with the interventionists. His overall thinking was described to a group of experts who had been called to the White House to discuss the crisis in Libya only days earlier.

"This is the greatest opportunity to realign our interests and our values," a senior administration official said at the meeting, telling the experts this sentence came from Obama himself. The president was referring to the broader change going on in the Middle East and the need to rebalance U.S. foreign policy toward a greater focus on democracy and human rights.

But Obama’s stance in Libya differs significantly from his strategy regarding the other Arab revolutions. In Egypt and Tunisia, Obama chose to rebalance the American stance gradually backing away from support for President Hosni Mubarak and Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali and allowing the popular movements to run their course. In Yemen and Bahrain, where the uprisings have turned violent, Obama has not even uttered a word in support of armed intervention – instead pressing those regimes to embrace reform on their own. But in deciding to attack Libya, Obama has charted an entirely new strategy, relying on U.S. hard power and the use of force to influence the outcome of Arab events.

"In the case of Libya, they just threw out their playbook," said Steve Clemons, the foreign policy chief at the New America Foundation. "The fact that Obama pivoted on a dime shows that the White House is flying without a strategy and that we have a reactive presidency right now and not a strategic one."

Inside the administration, senior officials were lined up on both sides. Pushing for military intervention was a group of NSC staffers including Samantha Power, NSC senior director for multilateral engagement; Gayle Smith, NSC senior director for global development; and Mike McFaul, NSC senior director for Russia. . 

On the other side of the ledger were some Obama administration officials who were reportedly wary of the second- and third-degree effects of committing to a lengthy military mission in Libya. These officials included National Security Advisor Tom Donilon and Deputy National Security Advisor Denis McDonough. Defense Secretary Robert Gates was also opposed to attacking Libya and had said as much in several public statements.

Not all of these officials were in Tuesday night’s meeting.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called into the meeting over the phone, a State Department official confirmed. She was traveling in the region to get a first-hand look at how the new U.S. Middle East strategy is being received across the Arab world. Denied a visit with Egyptian youth leaders on the same day she strolled through Tahir Square, Clinton may have been concerned that the United States was losing the battle for the hearts and minds of the Arab youth at the heart of the revolution.

When Clinton met with the G8 foreign ministers on Monday, she didn’t lay out whether the United States had a favored response to the unfolding crisis in Libya, leaving her European counterparts completely puzzled. She met Libyan opposition leader Mahmoud Jibril in Paris but declined to respond positively to his request for assistance. This all gave the impression that Clinton was resisting intervention. In fact, she supported intervention, State Department official said, but had to wait until the Tuesday night meeting so that she didn’t get out ahead of U.S. policy.

At the end of the Tuesday night meeting, Obama gave U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice instructions to go the U.N. Security Council and push for a resolution that would give the international community authority to use force. Her instructions were to get a resolution that would give the international community broad authority to achieve Qaddafi’s removal, including the use of force beyond the imposition of a no-fly zone.

Speaking before the U.N. Security Council following Thursday’s 10-0 vote, Rice made the humanitarian argument that force was needed in Libya to prevent civilian suffering.

"Colonel Qaddafi and those who still stand by him continue to grossly and systematically abuse the most fundamental human rights of Libya’s people," Rice said. "On March 12, the League of Arab States called on the Security Council to establish a no-fly zone and take other measures to protect civilians. Today’s resolution is a powerful response to that call-and to the urgent needs on the ground."

U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon also said on Thursday that the justification for the use of force was based on humanitarian grounds, and referred to the principle known as Responsibility to Protect (R2P), "a new international security and human rights norm to address the international community’s failure to prevent and stop genocides, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity."

"Resolution 1973 affirms, clearly and unequivocally, the international community’s determination to fulfill its responsibility to protect civilians from violence perpetrated upon them by their own government," he said.

Inside the NSC, Power, Smith, and McFaul have been trying to figure out how the administration could implement R2P and what doing so would require of the White House going forward. Donilon and McDonough are charged with keeping America’s core national interests more in mind. Obama ultimately sided with Clinton and those pushing R2P — over the objections of Donilon and Gates.

Congress was not broadly consulted on the decision to intervene in Libya, except in a Thursday afternoon classified briefing where administration officials explained the diplomatic and military plan. Rice was already deep in negotiations in New York.

Obama’s Tuesday night decision to push for armed intervention was not only a defining moment in his ever-evolving foreign policy, but also may have marked the end of the alliance between Clinton and Gates — an alliance that has successfully influenced administration foreign policy decisions dating back to the 2009 Afghanistan strategy review.

"Gates is clearly not on board with what’s going on and now the Defense Department may have an entirely another war on its hands that he’s not into," said Clemons. "Clinton won the bureaucratic battle to use DOD resources to achieve what’s essentially the State Department’s objective… and Obama let it happen."

UPDATE: A previous version of this story stated that Vice President Joseph Biden pushed for the imposition of a no fly zone in Libya. Friday afternoon, a senior White House official told The Cable that, in fact, Biden shared the same concerns of Gates, Donilon and McDonough and that those concerns have been addressed by the policy announced by the president.