The New York Times March 18, 2011
Obama Takes Hard Line With Libya After Shift by Clinton
By HELENE COOPER and STEVEN LEE MYERS
WASHINGTON — In a Paris hotel room on Monday night, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton found herself juggling the inconsistencies of American foreign policy in a turbulent Middle East. She criticized the foreign minister of the United Arab Emirates for sending troops to quash protests in Bahrain even as she pressed him to send planes to intervene in Libya.
Only the day before, Mrs. Clinton — along with her boss, President Obama — was a skeptic on whether the United States should take military action in Libya. But that night, with Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi’s forces turning back the rebellion that threatened his rule, Mrs. Clinton changed course, forming an unlikely alliance with a handful of top administration aides who had been arguing for intervention.
Within hours, Mrs. Clinton and the aides had convinced Mr. Obama that the United States had to act, and the president ordered up military plans, which Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, hand-delivered to the White House the next day. On Thursday, during an hour-and-a -half meeting, Mr. Obama signed off on allowing American pilots to join Europeans and Arabs in military strikes against the Libyan government.
The president had a caveat, though. The American involvement in military action in Libya should be limited — no ground troops — and finite. “Days, not weeks,” a senior White House official recalled him saying.
The shift in the administration’s position — from strong words against Libya to action — was forced largely by the events beyond its control: the crumbling of the uprising raised the prospect that Colonel Qaddafi would remain in power to kill “many thousands,” as Mr. Obama said at the White House on Friday.
The change became possible, though, only after Mrs. Clinton joined Samantha Power, a senior aide at the National Security Council, and Susan Rice, Mr. Obama’s ambassador to the United Nations, who had been pressing the case for military action, according to senior administration officials speaking only on condition of anonymity. Ms. Power is a former journalist and human rights advocate; Ms. Rice was an Africa adviser to President Clinton when the United States failed to intervene to stop the Rwanda genocide, which Mr. Clinton has called his biggest regret.
Now, the three women were pushing for American intervention to stop a looming humanitarian catastrophe in Libya.
Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts, one of the early advocates for military action in Libya, described the debate within the administration as “healthy.” He said that “the memory of Rwanda, alongside Iraq in ’91, made it clear” that the United States needed to act but needed international support.
In joining Ms. Rice and Ms. Power, Mrs. Clinton made an unusual break with Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates, who, along with the national security adviser, Thomas E. Donilon, and the counterterrorism chief, John O. Brennan, had urged caution. Libya was not vital to American national security interests, the men argued, and Mr. Brennan worried that the Libyan rebels remained largely unknown to American officials, and could have ties to Al Qaeda.
The administration’s shift also became possible only after the United States won not just the support of Arab countries but their active participation in military operations against one of their own.
“Hillary and Susan Rice were key parts of this story because Hillary got the Arab buy-in and Susan worked the U.N. to get a 10-to-5 vote, which is no easy thing,” said Brian Katulis, a national security expert with the Center for American Progress, a liberal group with close ties to the administration. This “puts the United States in a much stronger position because they’ve got the international support that makes this more like the 1991 gulf war than the 2003 Iraq war.”
Ever since the democracy protests in the region began three months ago, the Obama administration has struggled to balance America’s national security interests against support for democratic principles, a struggle that has left Mr. Obama subject to criticism from all sides of the political spectrum. And by taking a case-by-case approach — quickly embracing protesters in Tunisia, eventually coming around to fully endorse their cause in Egypt, but backing the rulers in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and Yemen — the administration at times has appeared inconsistent. While calling for Colonel Qaddafi’s ouster, administration officials indicated Mr. Obama was more concerned with unfolding events in Yemen, Bahrain and Egypt than with removing the Libyan leader.
There was high drama right up to the surprising Security Council vote on Thursday night, when the ambassador for South Africa, viewed as critical to getting the nine votes needed to pass the resolution, failed to show up for the final vote, causing Ms. Rice to rush from the chamber in search of him.
South Africa and Nigeria — along with Brazil and India — had all initially balked at authorizing force, but administration officials believed they had brought the Africans around. Mr. Obama had already been on the phone pressing President Jacob Zuma of South Africa to support the resolution, White House officials said. Eventually, the South African representative showed up to vote yes, as did the Nigerian representative, giving the United States one vote more than required. Brazil and India, meanwhile, joined Russia, China and Germany in abstaining.
The pivotal decision for Mr. Obama came on Tuesday though, after Mrs. Clinton had called from Paris with news that the Arab governments were willing to participate in military action. That would solve one of Mr. Gates’s concerns, that the United States not be viewed on the Arab street as going to war against another Muslim country.
Mrs. Clinton “had the proof,” one senior administration official said, “that not only was the Arab League in favor, but that the Emirates were serious about participating.”
During a meeting with Mr. Obama and his top national security aides — Ms. Rice was on video teleconference from New York; Mrs. Clinton from Paris — Ms. Rice sought to allay Mr. Gates’s concern that a no-fly zone by itself would not be enough to halt Colonel Qaddafi’s progress, recalled officials attending the meeting.
“Susan basically said that it was possible to get a tougher resolution” that would authorize a fuller range of options, including the ability to bomb Libyan government tanks on the road to Benghazi, the rebel stronghold in the east, administration official said.
“That was the turning point” for Mr. Obama, the official said. The president was scheduled to go to a dinner with military veterans that night; he told his aides to draw up military plans. And he instructed Ms. Rice to move forward with a broader resolution at the Security Council.
She already had one ready — drawn up the week before, just in case, officials said. Besides asking for an expanded military campaign, Ms. Rice loaded up the resolution with other items on the American wish list, including the authorization to use force to back an arms embargo against Libya. “We knew it would be a heavy lift to get any resolution through; our view was we might as well get as much as we could,” Ms. Rice said in a telephone interview.
On Wednesday at the Security Council, Russia put forward a competing resolution, calling for a cease-fire — well short of what the United States wanted. But the French, who had been trying to get a straight no-fly resolution through, switched to back the tougher American wording. And they “put it in blue” ink — U.N. code for calling for a vote.
“It was a brilliant tactical move,” an American official said. “They hijacked the text, which means it could be called to a vote at any time.”
On Thursday, the South Africans, Nigerians, Portuguese and Bosnians — all of them question marks — said they would support the tougher resolution.
Even after getting the Security Council endorsement, Mr. Obama made clear that the military action would be an international effort.
“The change in the region will not and cannot be imposed by the United States or any foreign power,” the president told reporters at the White House on Friday. “Ultimately, it will be driven by the people of the Arab world.”