- By Uri Friedman
Uri Friedman is deputy managing editor at Foreign Policy. Before joining FP, he reported for the Christian Science Monitor, worked on corporate strategy for Atlantic Media, helped launch the Atlantic Wire, and covered international affairs for the site. A proud native of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, he studied European history at the University of Pennsylvania and has lived in Barcelona, Spain and Geneva, Switzerland.
President Obama hasn’t mentioned the unpopular Libyan intervention much on the campaign trail, making only a passing reference to the successful operation in his convention speech last week (Senator John Kerry was the only speaker who addressed the conflict at any length).
Late on Tuesday, however, Vanity Fair released a much-anticipated profile of Obama by journalist Michael Lewis — one that relies on unprecedented White House access to illuminate the process by which the president decided to intervene in Libya, interwoven with the story of a U.S. airman whose plane crashed in the Libyan desert during the operation. Obama comes across as a decisive, thoughtful, and principled commander-in-chief — the kind of portrait the Obama campaign would want to see in the press during the final months of the election.
The article, however, is getting drowned out today by criticisms of the president’s Libya policy in the wake of an assault on the U.S. consulate in the eastern city of Benghazi that killed the U.S. ambassador to Libya and three staffers. While many Republicans and Democrats are calling for unity in the face of the attack and the simultaneous storming of the U.S. Embassy in Cairo, some on the right are criticizing the Obama administration instead.
On Wednesday, Mitt Romney, who has criticized Obama in the past for bungling the intervention and neglecting Libya’s political transition, declared that "American leadership is necessary to ensure that events in the region don’t spin out of control." On Facebook, Sarah Palin added, "these countries represent [Obama’s] much touted ‘Arab Spring.’ How’s that Arab Spring working out for us now?"
In his Vanity Fair profile, Lewis sheds light on Obama’s approach to the Arab Spring in a vivid description of a Situation Room discussion in mid-March, as Muammar al-Qaddafi’s troops advanced toward Benghazi. Believing that a no-fly zone would prove ineffective, Obama peppered his national security team with questions about what kind of damage Qaddafi could inflict on the civilian population, before upending the meeting’s agenda altogether:
The Pentagon then presented the president with two options: establish a no-fly zone or do nothing at all. The idea was that the people in the meeting would debate the merits of each, but Obama surprised the room by rejecting the premise of the meeting. "He instantly went off the road map," recalls one eyewitness. "He asked, ‘Would a no-fly zone do anything to stop the scenario we just heard?’" After it became clear that it would not, Obama said, "I want to hear from some of the other folks in the room."
Obama then proceeded to call on every single person for his views, including the most junior people. "What was a little unusual," Obama admits, "is that I went to people who were not at the table. Because I am trying to get an argument that is not being made." The argument he had wanted to hear was the case for a more nuanced intervention — and a detailing of the more subtle costs to American interests of allowing the mass slaughter of Libyan civilians. His desire to hear the case raises the obvious question: Why didn’t he just make it himself? "It’s the Heisenberg principle," he says. "Me asking the question changes the answer. And it also protects my decision-making."
Lewis writes that it was mainly these junior staffers — some of whom were haunted by America’s failure to stop the Rwandan genocide — who argued for intervention in Libya, adding that Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes, who would be tasked with drafting a Libya speech, "said in the meeting that he preferred to explain why the United States had prevented a massacre over why it hadn’t."
Connecting Obama’s Libya decision to the theory of "just wars" that the president articulated in accepting his Nobel Peace Prize, Lewis argues that Obama ultimately bucked his Cabinet’s advice in pushing for a U.N. resolution authorizing "all necessary measures" to protect Libyan civilians — and that he may have done so in part because the American public did not feel strongly about how the United States should respond to the Libyan crisis:
Once again he polled the people in the room for their views. Of the principals only [U.N. Ambassador] Susan Rice (enthusiastically) and [Secretary of State] Hillary Clinton (who would have settled for a no-fly zone) had the view that any sort of intervention made sense. "How are we going to explain to the American people why we’re in Libya," asked [White House Chief of Staff] William Daley, according to one of those present. "And Daley had a point: who gives a shit about Libya?"
From the president’s point of view there was a certain benefit in the indifference of the American public to whatever was happening in Libya. It enabled him to do, at least for a moment, pretty much whatever he wanted to do. Libya was the hole in the White House lawn.
Obama made his decision: push for the U.N resolution and effectively invade another Arab country. Of the choice not to intervene he says, "That’s not who we are," by which he means that’s not who I am. The decision was extraordinarily personal. "No one in the Cabinet was for it," says one witness. "There was no constituency for doing what he did."
In connecting Obama’s decision-making process back to the experience of the downed Air Force pilot, Lewis points out that the administration’s narrative on Libya would have looked very different had the navigator not been rescued:
Then the story would no longer have been a complex tale ignored by the American public about how the United States had forged a broad international coalition to help people who claimed to share our values rid themselves of a tyrant.
The story would have become a much simpler one, ripe for exploitation by his foes: how a president elected to extract us from a war in one Arab country got Americans killed in another.
Will the narrative on America’s involvement in Libya change after this week’s tragic events?