Inside Obama's War Room

How he decided to intervene in Libya – and what it says about his evolution as commander in chief

October 13, 2011 8:00 AM ET
barack obama joe biden libya white house
President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden attend a meeting on Libya in the Situation Room of the White House.
Official White House Photo by Pete Souza

On the afternoon of monday, March 14th, the French philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy stood nervously in the lounge of Le Bourget Airport on the outskirts of Paris, waiting for a private jet carrying a lone Libyan rebel to land. At 62, Lévy is one of France's most famous writers and provocateurs, a regular fixture in the tabloids, where he's known simply as BHL. He rarely goes a month without controversy – whether defending the reputations of accused sex offenders like Roman Polanski and Dominique Strauss-Kahn, or waging one-man foreign-policy campaigns that usually end in failure. In 1993, he tried unsuccessfully to persuade President François Mitterrand to intervene in the Balkans. In 2001, he personally arranged for Afghan leader Ahmed Shah Massoud to meet with President Jacques Chirac, only to have the French Foreign Ministry scuttle the trip for fear of angering the Taliban. Now, as he anxiously paced the airport lounge, he was embarking on what would turn out to be one of the most audacious and improbable feats of amateur diplomacy in modern history.

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Wearing his trademark outfit – designer suit, no tie, white shirt unbuttoned to reveal a deeply tanned chest – Lévy was waiting for the arrival of Mahmoud Jibril, the leader of the Libyan rebels who had been fighting for three weeks to overthrow Muammar Qaddafi. Lévy had secretly helped arrange for a meeting in Paris later that day between Jibril and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Prodded by Lévy, France had granted formal recognition to the Libyan opposition, known as the National Transitional Council. But no other European country had followed France's lead, and the uprising now appeared in danger of being crushed by Qaddafi, who had just launched an all-out military counteroffensive. Both Lévy and Jibril believed that getting the support of the Americans was the rebels' last hope. "If he doesn't succeed with Clinton," Lévy thought, "all we achieved in France this past week will have been for nothing."

But the meeting with Clinton had already run into a serious snag. Jibril, a 58-year-old political scientist who once taught at the University of Pittsburgh, had been detained at customs. Though he had been received in the Élysée Palace only days before for a meeting Lévy had arranged with President Nicolas Sarkozy, Jibril did not have official clearance to re-enter France. As the hours ticked away, the 5 p.m. time slot for the meeting with Clinton came and went. Lévy scrambled to reschedule. "At six she had a meeting with Sarkozy, at eight was a dinner or something with the G8," he told me recently in St. Paul de Vence, his home in the south of France. "It was very complicated." The consequences of the delay, he feared, could be catastrophic.

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After Jibril finally cleared customs, Lévy succeeded in getting Clinton's last free moment of the night before she flew on to Cairo – 10 p.m. in her hotel suite. Lévy and Jibril took a black Mercedes sedan from the Raphael, the luxury hotel in Paris where Lévy lives when in the city, to the Westin, where Clinton was staying.

Forty-five minutes later, Jibril emerged from the meeting. "He goes out furious, he goes out fuming," Lévy recalls. "He was convinced he had failed." Coached by Lévy, Jibril had urged Clinton to support a no-fly zone, arm the rebels and launch attacks on Qaddafi's army. If the U.S. failed to intervene, he warned, there would be mass killings, just as there had been after Bill Clinton failed to take action in Rwanda and the Balkans in the 1990s. But Hillary appeared unmoved by the plea, and Jibril was distraught. To avoid reporters who were traveling with Clinton, Jibril left the hotel through a back entrance.

Lévy and Jibril returned to the Raphael. At 1 a.m., they sat down to write a press release – a desperate call for support that was, Lévy says, "implicitly addressed to the Americans." "Friends around the world!" it implored, "Libya's freedom is in danger of death – come to our rescue... Don't let the Arab Spring die in Benghazi." They finished an hour later, but decided to hold off until morning before hitting SEND. Jibril was scheduled to fly back to Qatar, where the National Transitional Council had set up a base of operations. "Then we waited," Lévy told me. What, he wondered before going to sleep that night, would President Obama do?

Since the beginning of the Arab Spring, the Obama administration had been grappling with how the United States should respond to the wave of democratic uprisings sweeping the region, first in Tunisia, then in Egypt, Yemen, Bahrain, Libya, Morocco and Syria. In his first major foreign-policy address as president, given 18 months earlier in Cairo, Obama had pointedly called for a fundamental realignment in the region. "I've come here to Cairo to seek a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world," he declared, warning autocratic governments that they must maintain their power "through consent, not coercion."

But once those governments actually began to fall, the Obama administration was slow to distance itself from the oil-rich autocrats the U.S. had supported for decades. In Egypt, Vice President Joe Biden downplayed the democratic revolt, saying that he didn't consider Hosni Mubarak a "dictator." In Bahrain – home of the U.S. 5th Fleet – the administration looked the other way as the royal family allowed the military to violently crush peaceful street protests. In Yemen, the U.S. chose not to intervene when the country's military fired into crowds calling for the president's resignation. To Arab protesters, Obama's "new beginning" seemed more like the same old American realpolitik that had long dominated the Middle East.

In Libya, however, the uprising took on a decidedly different character than those of its neighbors. After only a week of peaceful demonstrations, the protesters had transformed themselves into an armed rebel force and began marching on Tripoli. A series of high-level Libyan officials defected to the opposition, joining the newly formed government in Benghazi. Qaddafi's hold on power looked shaky – until he mounted a brutal counteroffensive on March 6th. The rebel leadership in Benghazi pleaded for Western help, making a number of spectacular claims: accusations of mass rapes, of Libyan gunships firing on protesters, of 30,000 civilians killed.

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