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The Libya debate: How fair is Obama’s new claim that the U.S. led from the front?

The Libya debate: How fair is Obama’s new claim that the U.S. led from the front?

President Barack Obama last night boasted about American leadership in toppling Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi, reopening the debate about whether it was the United States or France and Britain that deserved credit for overthrowing Africa’s longest ruling dictator.

"I and Americans took leadership in organizing an international coalition that made sure that we were able to — without putting troops on the ground, at the cost of less than what we spent in two weeks in Iraq — liberate a country that had been under the yoke of dictatorship for 40 years, got rid of a despot who had killed Americans," Obama said in the final presidential debate. "And as a consequence, despite this tragedy, you had tens of thousands of Libyans after the events in Benghazi marching and saying, ‘America’s our friend.’"

"This is an example of — of how we make choices, you know, when we went into Libya and we were able to immediately stop the massacre there because of the unique circumstances and the coalition that we had helped to organize, we also had to make sure that Muammar Qaddafi didn’t stay there," he said. "Muammar Qaddafi had more American blood on his hands than any individual other than Osama bin Laden. And so we were going to make sure that we finished the job."

The American claim to having led the effort has always irritated the French and British, who first mounted a diplomatic campaign at the U.N. Security Council to impose a no-fly zone over Libya to prevent Qaddafi from using his aircraft to attack civilians. The United States initially refused to participate in that effort and the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Susan Rice, repeatedly criticized the European initiative as feckless.

One top European diplomat denounced Washington’s claims of leadership over the Libya campaign as "revisionist history." This morning, Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen weighed in, arguing that Obama’s claims of having led the coalition in Libya was among the most dishonest claims of the entire foreign policy debate.

President Obama "strongly suggested that he had America take the lead in Libya, organizing the air campaign that brought down Moammar Gaddafi. In fact, the French took the lead and the United States followed, which gave rise the phrase "leading from behind" — an indictable offense, if you ask me. Obama also suggested that Gaddafi was some sort of American enemy when actually Washington had cut a deal with the Libyan strongman and then-secretary of state Condoleezza Rice had met with him in 2008."

So what actually happened? I covered the diplomatic deliberations over the war against Libya. And while the United States initially provided little diplomatic support to their European allies’ push for a no-fly zone ( and largely kept them in the dark about internal U.S. deliberations on the use of force), it ultimately took charge of the diplomatic effort at the U.N., and pursued a far more aggressive military approach than that advocated by the Europeans.

In March, 2011, pro-Qaddafi forces advanced on the rebel stronghold of Benghazi, preparing to deliver a decisive blow that could have crushed the nascent armed resistance and led to the slaughter of large numbers of civilians. 

Britain and France, with the backing of Lebanon, labored in solitude behind the scenes in New York to rally support for a resolution that would have imposed a no-fly zone over Libya, but received virtually no support from the United States.

"The Americans haven’t yet defined their position on Libya," the frustrated then French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe told a French parliamentary foreign affairs committee on March 15, 2011, two daysbefore the council acted. "Never mind that there’s European impotence, but what about American power? What about Russian power? What’s China’s power over Libya?"

France’s irritation stemmed from a perception that President Obama’s national security team was hesitant to participate in an air operation to protect civilians. Even as the White House labored in internal discussions toward considering a military approach, Rice peppered her colleagues in the Security Council with so many questions and conditions — we won’t go in without the Arabs, for instance — that some suspected she was trying to kill off the initiative.

Two days before the air campaign was ultimately authorized, France’s U.N. ambassador, Gerard Araud, informed Rice that European governments would push for a vote on a resolution creating a no-fly zone, with or without America’s support.

Rice, who lacked instructions from Washington to rally support for a military response, was not prepared to support her European allies, according to council diplomats. "You’re not going to drag us into your shitty war," Rice snapped, according to an account by a senior council diplomat. Araud shot back: "We are not a subsidiary of the United States."

But the winds shifted after the Arab League threw its support behind the no-fly zone and the prospects of a mass killing in eastern Libya grew, placing the United States in the position of having to choose whether to back a military response, or step aside.

Following the conversation between Rice and Araud, the United States held a high-level teleconference with Obama’s top national security team, including Rice and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who had just met with Arab leaders, agreed to intervene. Rice, who had a deep skepticism about the European approach, mounted a far more aggressive campaign for a resolution authorizing air strikes against Libyan forces to prevent the slaughter of civilians. Within two days, Rice had secured narrow 10-5 vote in favor of military force, underscoring the tenuous international support, but sufficient to launch the air war, which ultimately helped the rebels over throw Qaddafi.

A senior administration official said that the off-color encounter with Araud didn’t "ring a bell" with Rice. But the official defended Rice’s handling of the Libya file. The British and French were unaware that at the time she was questioning the wisdom of their approach — which she called a "naked no-fly zone" — that she was arguing for far tougher action in the White House, and that she had discretely advised her staff weeks earlier to draft a resolution authorizing sweeping military powers, according to the senior U.S. diplomat. (The contents of the draft have never been published.)

"There were some colleagues who were supportive of action who quite frankly thought we were trying to poison this, that we were trying to up the ante so far that we blew it up," Rice told me last year. "But we were dead serious and we believed this couldn’t be half hearted. It had to be for real if it was worth doing."

Fair enough. But the notion that the United States led the U.N. effort in Libya continues to grate on the nerves of some European diplomats who felt the Americans left their closest allies in the dark until the final decision to act.

Follow me on Twitter @columlynch