Turtle Bay

Amb. Rice: Leading from behind? That’s ‘whacked.’

So, what does Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, really think of the so-called doctrine “leading from behind.” “That’s just a whacked out phrase,” Rice told Turtle Bay after the Security Council voted on Oct. 27 to end the U.N.-sanctioned military mission in Libya. In a lengthy exclusive interview, Rice joined a ...

Scott Olson/Getty Images
Scott Olson/Getty Images

So, what does Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, really think of the so-called doctrine “leading from behind.”

“That’s just a whacked out phrase,” Rice told Turtle Bay after the Security Council voted on Oct. 27 to end the U.N.-sanctioned military mission in Libya.

In a lengthy exclusive interview, Rice joined a chorus of U.S. officials, from President Barack Obama on down, who have sought to distance the administration from the slogan, which has been used by supporters and critics alike to credit or discredit the U.S. role in toppling Col. Muammar al-Qaddafi‘s government. White House officials and Rice’s own aides have recoiled at its very utterance.

Seven months after the U.N. Security Council voted to authorize the use of military force, a decision that in hindsight appears to have been decisive in toppling Qaddafi, Rice is making the case that the former Libyan’s leader downfall was the product of U.S. diplomatic leadership, Libyan resistance, and United Nations legitimacy. “We led this thing,” she said. “We put teeth in this mandate.”

But it didn’t always seem that way.

Back in March, as pro-Qaddafi forces advanced on Benghazi, preparing to deliver a decisive blow that could have crushed the nascent armed resistance, 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.

“The Americans haven’t yet defined their position on Libya,” the frustrated French Foreign Minister, Alain Juppe, told a French parliamentary foreign affairs committee days before 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?”

In Washington, the United States appeared divided over the wisdom of committing American military assets to the anti-Qaddafi campaign.

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.

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 chose whether to back a military response, or step aside.

At that stage, the United States stepped in and took over, disparaging the European resolution, which now had the backing of the Arabs, as inadequate. Instead, it demanded a resolution that would grant sweeping power to launch air-strikes against Qaddafi’s forces and provide legal cover to governments willing to arm the Libyan rebels.

“It was deeply frustrating to the president because we’d be flying around up in the sky with a great investment of political capital and military assets with zero ability to affect what was going on the ground, which is where the slaughter was taking place,” Rice recalled. “In the [Security] Council, I called it the ‘naked no-fly zone.'”

But the allies didn’t think Washington was serious. Rice made two demands to the council that her European colleagues feared would trigger a veto by Russia, which had sought to restrict the West’s freedom to use force following the Iraq war. She demanded sweeping explicitly legal authority from the United Nations to use force against Qaddafi’s troops and key national security installations, and she insisted that Arab countries sign on to participate in the NATO-led air coalition

“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,” she said. “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.”

While the U.S. language gave the military coalition the flexibility it required to strike Qaddafi’s military forces, it has since proved divisive in the council, casting a shadow over subsequent deliberations, particularly with regard to Syria, where China and Russia cast a veto to block a Western-backed resolution that would have condemned Damascus’ action.

Brazil, China, India, and Russia — who joined Germany in abstaining on the resolution authorizing force in Libya — have sharply criticized the war effort, saying the NATO-led alliance abused its authority and exceeded its mandate to protect civilians by backing one side in a civil war. South Africa, which voted in favor of the resolution, joined in the criticism, suggesting that the United States and its allies had duped the council.

“That, in my judgment, is a truly specious argument,” Rice responded. “That’s my polite way of saying it,” she said. The entire council “knew what they were getting into because we spelled it out.”

“Maybe they thought it would be quicker, maybe they were just trying to give us enough rope to hang ourselves … and we’re sorry we didn’t,” she added. “Whatever their explanations or motives, they bought this thing — every single one of them. And now to use this as an excuse [to block action elsewhere] I think is dishonest.”

That dispute rests on a critical piece of drafting that left greater ambiguity over the scope of military support that outsiders could provide to the rebels. More than a month before NATO-led air campaign began, the U.N. Security Council passed a resolution imposing an arms embargo on Libya in an effort to constrain Qaddafi’s capacity to bolster his forces with foreign mercenaries. But the West didn’t anticipate a viable armed resistance movement taking form.

The result was that the embargo also undercut the resistance’s capacity to defend itself at a time when Qaddafi’s forces were poised to unleash a final offensive to wipe them out. In a piece of legislative sleight of hand, the U.S. included a provision in the no-fly resolution that provided a vague, unspecified exemption from the arms embargo. It would later be cited by United States (which claims it never armed the rebels) and France (which did), as providing legal authority for shipping arms to the anti-Qaddafi coalition. (For a more detailed account see my earlier post.)

Other Security Council members, however, claimed the exemption provided no such authority.

“The clear perception of the large majority of the council is that it would not open the door to arming the rebels,” a council diplomat from a country that supported the military campaign told me.

But Rice said that claims that NATO had overreached its mandate in Libya are untrue.

Rice insisted that the U.S. had never intended to use the U.N. mandate for the protection of civilians as a pretext for toppling Qaddafi. “When we passed Resolution 1973 it was very much our expectation and intention that we would be using force to enforce the mandate to protect civilians,” she said. “We did not conflate that with regime change as part of the military mission. Our stated national policy, which we did not aim to implement though military means, was that Qaddafi should go. That wasn’t what we asked the Security Council for, nor was that ever what we viewed the mandate to provide for.”

In the end, Rice said that the NATO-led military support operation has become an unquestionable success story — bringing an end to one of the world’s most reviled dictatorships without the loss of life of a single American life, at a relatively modest financial cost, and without the need for a large foreign peacekeeping force to manage the country’s delicate political transition. Even the council’s most ardent critics gave their approval on Oct. 27 to a resolution that welcomed the “positive developments in Libya which will improve the prospects for a democratic, peaceful and prosperous future” for the North African country.

“The Security Council and the United States and NATO partners acted in the nick of time, with the benefit of international authority, to prevent a mass slaughter in the east of the country,” said Rice. “That in and of itself is a fact…. I have no doubt that [Qaddafi] would have wiped out the cities of the east. To me, there is no question that Libya is first and foremost in a better place.”

Rice also predicted that sharp differences in the Security Council would eventually be overcome, and that critics of the operation have been “toning down their rhetoric” and “working to redeem themselves, some with greater vigor than others.”

“Everybody loves a winner … particularly countries that have economic interests there,” she said.

Still, Rice conceded that emerging reports of excesses by anti-Qadaffi militias, including the apparent execution of Qaddafi in custody, signal that Libya’s future remains uncertain. It’s a “country that literally never had any government institutions. I think even Somalia has more institutions than Qaddafi’s Libya,” said Rice. “It’s one big cult of personality. It’s like building on quick sand and it will take time and it will be fragile, and it will be uneven and it will be wobbly at times. I think we need to be quite…sober about what we’re starting.”

Follow me on Twitter @columlynch

Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch

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