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Inside Obama's War Room

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Although some of the claims would later prove false, there was no question that Qaddafi had responded with excessive force, likely killing hundreds of protesters. How President Obama responded to those charges over the next three weeks – and to the rapidly unfolding events on the ground in Libya – provides one of the clearest examples to date of his leadership style and his broader vision for international affairs. Before Libya, Obama's primary foreign­policy decisions had centered on fixing the misadventures and mistakes of the Bush era: how to withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq, how to resolve the deepening disaster in Afghanistan, how to deal with Pakistan, how to get Osama bin Laden. In each case, Obama was struggling to fix policy decisions predicated on a foreign-policy doctrine with which he fundamentally disagreed. With Libya, Obama would demonstrate for the first time, through his actions, how he viewed America's role in the world, attempting to live up to the lofty declarations he made when he had crafted his National Security Strategy a year earlier. Going forward, he wrote, the U.S. would "avoid acting alone" and "reject the notion that lasting security and prosperity can be found by turning away from universal rights." Democracy, he insisted, "does not merely represent our better angels, it stands in opposition to aggression and injustice, and our support for human rights is both fundamental to American leadership and a source of our strength in the world." It was a resounding rejection of the cowboy unilateralism and human-rights-be-damned ethos of the Bush era. "The burdens of a young century," Obama insisted, "cannot fall on American shoulders alone."

In recent weeks, the national narrative about Obama has begun to settle into a form of accepted wisdom. The president, it is said, has repeatedly failed to provide the kind of tough, uncompromising leadership needed to move the country forward on almost every front: jobs, health care, financial reform, the debt ceiling, Afghanistan. "What the American people had started to question," one Democratic strategist explained to NPR, "is whether Barack Obama had the strong leadership and the courage of conviction to lay out a course and stick with it." But the untold story of how Obama decided to intervene in Libya – followed six weeks later by the successful assault he ordered on Osama bin Laden – reveals a commander in chief who has significantly departed from the agonized deliberations he engaged in just two years ago over how to reshape America's role in Afghanistan. Although the president consulted a wide range of advisers about Libya, from Middle East experts and Pentagon brass to starry-eyed humanitarians, he acted with unprecedented speed and decisiveness. It was the first war he started on his own – and the success of the Libyan rebellion is largely the result of the decisions he made at the very outset of the uprising.

"It isn't leading from behind," says Anne-Marie Slaughter, the former head of policy planning at the State Department, rejecting a quote in The New Yorker by an unnamed Obama adviser that came to dominate the debate over Libya. "We created the conditions for others to step up. That exemplifies Obama's leadership at its best. The world is not going to get there without us – and we did it in a way where we're not stuck, or bearing all the costs."

By the end of February, according to a senior administration official, Obama had begun "an incredibly intensive series of discussions in the Oval Office and the Situation Room" on how to handle Libya. From the start, insiders say, the players broke down into two distinct camps. On one side were top-level Pentagon and White House advisers who were skeptical of further military intervention, given the continued U.S. presence in Afghanistan and Iraq. This group included Biden, who had argued strongly against Obama's decision in 2009 to launch a military surge in Afghanistan, and Biden's friend Tom Donilon, the president's national security adviser. (The two men are close: Donilon's wife is Jill Biden's chief of staff.) Also in the skeptic camp were Donilon's deputy, Denis McDonough, who had served on Obama's campaign staff in 2008, and Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who dubbed calls for intervention "loose talk."

The skeptics didn't disagree that a Libya without Qaddafi would be a desirable outcome. Libya sits atop the world's ninth-largest oil reserves, producing 1.6 million barrels a day, and the colonel was an unpredictable ally at best, a dangerous madman at worst. In 1986, Qaddafi ordered an attack on a Berlin disco that killed two U.S. soldiers, and in 1988, he authorized the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103, resulting in the deaths of all 270 people onboard. His personal quirks – the rambling speeches, the Bedouin tents, the sexy female bodyguards – added to his image as a villain straight out of James Bond. Since 2003, however, Qaddafi had undergone an extreme makeover, courtesy of a multimillion-dollar PR campaign that enlisted influential Washington insiders and policy wonks like Richard Perle and Francis Fukuyama. He gave up his weapons of mass destruction, helped the CIA interrogate Islamic radicals and secured Libya a seat on the U.N. Human Rights Council. To top U.S. officials he had become, in the infamous tweet in 2009 from Sen. John McCain, "an interesting man."

Despite the temptation to overthrow Qaddafi, however, the skeptics in the administration posed a set of tough questions: Would intervening on the side of the rebels make it harder to support U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan? Could it inadvertently lead us into a third ground war? Would it jeopardize cooperation from other countries in the battle against Al Qaeda? Would it undercut the rebels by putting an American footprint on what had up until now been a homegrown revolution? And did we really know who the rebels were? "There was a certain wariness to get involved militarily in a third Muslim country," says one senior administration official who took part in the deliberations.

On the other side of the internal debate was a faction of unlikely allies within the White House and the State Department who viewed Libya as an opportunity to enact a new form of humanitarian intervention, one that they had been sketching out for nearly a decade. Up until this point, their views hadn't held much sway within an administration marked by its pragmatism and caution. Their formative experience in foreign policy wasn't Iraq or Afghanistan, but memories of the ethnic cleansing in the Balkans and Rwanda during the 1990s, a period in which they firmly believed that the United States had failed in its responsibilities to other countries. They would now be to Obama what the neoconservatives had been to Bush: ardent advocates for war in the name of a grander cause. Libya, in effect, represents the rise of the humanitarian Vulcans.

One of the most vocal interventionists was Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, who had been publicly apologizing for years for her failure to push for an intervention in Rwanda when she served on the National Security Council under Bill Clinton. "I would rather be alone and a loud voice for action than be silent," she has said, even if it meant her career "going down in flames." Obama had not only made Rice the first African-American woman to serve as ambassador to the U.N., he had made the position a Cabinet-level post, meaning that she reported directly to the president. Rice, in fact, had baggage with the Clintons, who felt slighted by her decision to join the Obama campaign as one of his earliest foreign-policy advisers.

In January 2009, during her first speech at the U.N. Security Council, Rice reinforced the Obama administration's commitment to a theory called "responsibility to protect." R2P, as it is known in foreign-policy circles, is a U.N. doctrine accepted in 2005 that laid the international framework for humanitarian intervention. Although the Bush administration endorsed R2P, it was criticized – by Rice and others – for not putting the doctrine into practice to prevent civilian deaths in Darfur in 2006. As defined by Rice in her speech to the Security Council, R2P states that the "international community has a responsibility to protect civilian populations from violations of international humanitarian law when states are unwilling or unable to do so." If Rice had her way, Libya would become the first test case for R2P. In early March, according to U.S. officials familiar with the discussions, Rice and her team at the U.N. began preparing a resolution that called for international action in Libya.

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