The Obama rationale for intervention in Libya

A fascinating investigation by Michael Hastings in Rolling Stone – this is one journalist (and friend) with a fine record of uncovering secrets – on the internal American dialogue over military intervention in Libya. A key theme, repeated over and over again by various officials, is the desire by elements within the Obama administration to be on the supposed right side of history and not be seen as backing dictators (the default Washington position):

It is still debatable whether Libyan civilians ever faced a genocidal threat. But unlike the false accusations of WMDs leveled against Saddam Hussein, which were intentionally manufactured by the Bush administration to justify its invasion of Iraq, the concerns about atrocities by Qaddafi seemed all too real at the time. According to multiple sources who attended the meeting in the Situation Room, Obama quickly concluded that a no-fly zone wouldn’t be enough to stop the feared massacre: NATO would need to bomb Qaddafi’s tanks and missile sites as well.

“You’re telling me that Benghazi could be overrun this week, but you’re not giving me any options that stop it,” the president said after two hours of discussion. “I want real options.” Obama ordered his team to develop plans that would go “beyond a no-fly zone.” Then he ended the meeting, instructing those present to reconvene at 9 p.m. Donilon and McDonough peeled off to set up a smaller meeting with the national security staff, while Rice put out feelers at the U.N.

At nine, Obama returned from a dinner with Pentagon commanders and entered the Situation Room. (Because it was 3:30 a.m. in Cairo, Clinton was not present.) It was a contentious evening, according to sources familiar with the meeting. When Rice reported that she believed she could get U.N. support for a broader intervention, Gates butted heads with her, seemingly unwilling to relent. Rice argued that the credibility of the U.N. Security Council was at stake. Another senior adviser disagreed, pointing out that though Qaddafi was a horrible person, we had lived with him for decades. Why risk going down a road that could lead to a wider conflict, especially when there were plenty of worse atrocities elsewhere? Obama, as usual, listened without reacting. “He was invariably extremely calm,” said one official who attended the meeting. “He doesn’t get riled up.”

Gates offered a last-ditch case against intervention, arguing that Libya had little strategic value. He warned that the U.S. often ended up “owning” what happened, pointing to Kosovo and the no-fly zone over Kurdistan in Iraq. He said he was wary of getting involved in a third Muslim country, and feared “a stalemate.”

The president answered these arguments himself. According to one participant’s summary, Obama said: Look, the question of who rules Libya is probably not a vital interest to the United States. The atrocities threatened don’t compare to atrocities in other parts of the world, I hear that. But there’s a big “but” here. First of all, acting would be the right thing to do, because we have an opportunity to prevent a massacre, and we’ve been asked to do it by the people of Libya, their Arab neighbors and the United Nations. And second, the president said, failing to intervene would be a “psychological pendulum, in terms of the Arab Spring, in favor of repression.” He concluded: “Just signing on to a no-fly zone so that we have political cover isn’t going to cut it. That’s not how America leads.” Nor, he added, is it the “image of America I believe in.”

The debate was over. The president ordered Rice to go back to the U.N. and “lean forward” on a resolution that would authorize NATO to strike targets on the ground and take “all necessary measures.” The humanitarian argument for intervention had carried the day. “The media makes as if this was an esoteric discussion on a foreign-policy website about intervention versus realism,” says a White House official. “That’s crap when you’re sitting in the Situation Room and a city of 700,000 is facing indiscriminate slaughter. That’s what moved the president.”