Inside Obama's War Room

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

barack obama joe biden libya white house
Official White House Photo by Pete Souza
President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden attend a meeting on Libya in the Situation Room of the White House.
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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.

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.

Joining Rice in the push for intervention was Samantha Power, the former Harvard professor and author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning A Problem From Hell, which argues that the West must be willing to take military action to prevent genocide in other countries. Like Rice, Power had a history of bad blood with Hillary Clinton. In 2005, as Obama contemplated a presidential run, he had personally reached out to Power, holding a five-hour mind meld that ended with him offering her a job on his Senate staff. During his campaign, she served as one of his closest foreign-policy advisers – until she was abruptly forced to resign in 2008 after an interview in which she angrily denounced Hillary Clinton as a "monster." (Richard Holbrooke, the late ambassador, eventually brokered a peace treaty of sorts between the two women.) When Obama won the White House, he made Power, now 41, the director of multilateral affairs at the National Security Council. But according to those close to Power, she had grown frustrated with the post, which relegated her to "doing rinky-dink do-gooder stuff," in the words of one official – advocating on behalf of Christians in Iraq, say, or promoting government openness in Kyrgyzstan. White House sources say Power remained Obama's "buddy" and enjoyed a "special relationship" with him, but she no longer had as much access to the president. For Power, Libya represented the culmination of everything she had worked for over the years – and a chance to reassert herself within the White House.

The wild card in the debate over Libya, according to insiders, was Clinton herself. The relationship between the White House and the State Department had been tense since Obama appointed his onetime rival as America's top diplomat. According to veteran officials at State, Clinton installed the most controlling – and paranoid – staff they had ever seen. "They do things like not release her schedule to us, like it's top-secret, even though other secretaries of state had been doing it for years," says one official. "For a while, it was like Spy vs. Spy," says another. "Hillary would have her people, Obama had his, and they were keeping tabs on each other." A State Department official rejects such characterizations as "extreme," insisting that any feathers that Clinton's team ruffled weren't "intentional or malicious." In March, however, an unnamed Clinton ally told The Daily that the secretary of state was frustrated with "a president who can't make up his mind," referring to Obama as "a president who can't decide if today is Tuesday or Wednesday."

During the internal debate over Libya, Clinton started off questioning the wisdom of intervention. At first, she stuck with her longtime ally Robert Gates, who strongly opposed launching a war that he warned would overtax the Pentagon. Clinton also worried that if an intervention failed to remove Qaddafi, or failed to gain enough international support, it would be a blow to American credibility. But in a sign of the defense secretary's dwindling influence, Clinton began to break away from Gates and side with her former rivals, Power and Rice. "I think she had some firsthand experience that changed her views," says one official familiar with her thinking. On March 12th, before her trip to the Middle East, Clinton learned that Arab states might back an intervention in Libya. Three days later, she was rattled when a coalition of Egyptian youth groups refused to meet with her. According to several State Department officials, the snub left her thinking, "We didn't get off to such a great start with Egypt – let's reverse that with Libya."

The president apparently shared the impulse to use Libya to make up for the administration's slow-footed response to the Arab Spring. At first, he settled for imposing a freeze on Libyan assets in the United States, estimated at $30 billion, and authorizing $10 million in humanitarian assistance to Libyan refugees. But on March 6th, Rolling Stone has learned – the day Qaddafi launched his counterattack against the rebels – Donilon established a working group at the National Security Council to commence planning for a post-Qaddafi government. The group began looking at "day after" scenarios, as administration officials called them – a nod to the glaring absence of such preparation before the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan. Over the next few months, the working group systematically gathered ideas from across the government – from the State Department to Treasury to the CIA – exploring a host of possible outcomes. The questions it addressed reveal how acutely aware the White House was of the potential for disaster: How messy will this be? Will there be a civil war, or a more linear downfall that allows time to set up a new government? Will a U.N. peacekeeping force be required, and if so, how many soldiers will it need? And, most critically, how will the rebel militias be reintegrated into Libyan society once the fighting was over? "From Day One, one of the big questions that the president engaged with was, 'Well, what happens if the end result is that Qaddafi's gone?'" says Tony Blinken, a top-ranking national security adviser in the White House. "What comes next? Is that better, worse or the same?"

Though Donilon was skeptical of intervention, he "ran a fair process," according to U.S. officials with knowledge of the debate. Those supporting intervention, including Power, were invited to make their case. "Power's knowledge on the playbook on humanitarian intervention was critical," says a White House official. "She had an encyclopedic knowledge of what was or wasn't done, what [Bill] Clinton did or didn't do, what options were available to policymakers, how they escalate, and what are realistic outcomes. She teed this up [for the president and his advisers] extremely quickly and concisely." Michael McFaul, another advocate for intervention at the National Security Council who closely followed the revolt in Egypt, put together "a six-inch binder" on different scenarios about post-conflict transitioning to democracy, from Indonesia to the former Soviet Union, which he passed along to Donilon.

During the first two weeks of March, Obama drove the discussion, asking probing questions and voraciously consuming information on Libya, pressing both sides of the debate. "He's very effective at questioning one person, challenging their premise, and then in the next question to someone else, arguing exactly the opposite," says a senior administration official. "So you don't know where he's coming out, but you do know you have to be intellectually rigorous and honest." As he analyzed the crisis, Obama kept his own cards close – so much so that even those deeply engaged in the strategy sessions found it hard to get an accurate impression of where he came down on the issue. But in a move that seemed squarely aimed at avoiding the mistakes of Afghanistan and Iraq, Obama also laid down what insiders say was a set of five guiding principles for any intervention in Libya: that it be effective, multilateral, follow international law, put no American boots on the ground, and pursue a well-defined, achievable goal.

To gather outside opinions about Libya and the Arab Spring, the White House also consulted with a wide range of experts. Beginning in February, senior administration officials sat down in the Roosevelt Room with a handful of high­profile analysts, including the neoconservative Elliott Abrams, one of the most vocal opponents of the administration. Abrams, who served as a White House adviser during some of the most questionable international escapades authorized by George W. Bush and Ronald Reagan, was one of 40 militants, including Iraq architect Paul Wolfowitz, who had signed a letter to Obama in February urging the president to protect Libyan civilians and overthrow Qaddafi.

At one briefing, Tom Malinowski of Human Rights Watch, who served as a special assistant to Bill Clinton, also spoke in favor of intervention. Unless America took action, he warned, there would likely be a significant loss of life in Libya, an outcome he called "brutal, bloody and extremely deadly." Others who attended the session felt that Malinowski's assessment of the Libyan rebels was "rosy" and "reckless." Steve Clemons, an influential progressive at the New America Foundation, offered a more skeptical take on the rebel leaders, who included a mix of former Qaddafi thugs, high-minded reformers and militant Islamists once aligned with Al Qaeda. "You better hope these guys aren't the humanitarians you're painting them as," he said, rejecting Malinowski's upbeat portrayal of the Libyan opposition. "If so, they don't stand a chance of surviving if Qaddafi falls."

By March 10th, as Qaddafi's forces began to fight back, the situation for the rebels was deteriorating rapidly. Going into the weekend, sources say, the White House was leaning toward arming the rebels – a low-cost way to support the Libyan opposition without policing a no-fly zone or launching airstrikes. Donilon backed the move, which would avoid bringing the U.S. into a head-to-head military confrontation with Qaddafi. But the plan alarmed Slaughter, the former State Department policy chief, who emerged as one of the most prominent supporters of intervention. "I was convinced that the White House was leaning toward arming the rebels," says Slaughter, now at Princeton. "I felt it was the worst of both options. It wasn't going to work, and it would make things worse." By the time the rebels got the arms – which could take weeks – she believed that Qaddafi would have already seized Benghazi. On Monday, March 14th, while her former boss was preparing to meet with Mahmoud Jibril in Paris, Slaughter published an op-ed in The New York Times accusing the United States and its allies of "Fiddling While Libya Burns," as the headline dramatically put it.

The next afternoon, at 4 p.m., Obama met with his top advisers in the White House Situation Room. The president took his seat at the head of the table, flanked by a dozen members of the National Security Council, with almost as many staffers sitting along the wall. Hillary Clinton, who had just arrived in Cairo after leaving Paris that morning, called in on a secure line. She informed the council that she had met with Jibril the night before, and that she believed the Arab League would fully support a no-fly zone over Libya, permitting NATO to effectively ground Qaddafi's air force by policing the skies with fighter jets flown from Europe and an aircraft carrier positioned off Libya's coast.

Obama looked through the stack of briefing papers and PowerPoint slides he'd been given. He then received a dire assessment on the military situation from Robert Cardillo, his deputy director for national intelligence. At least three cities formerly held by the rebels, Cardillo reported, had fallen or were about to fall to Qaddafi's forces, including the strategically important city of Ajdabiya. Obama responded by asking his intelligence advisers what reports of atrocities they had received, and what would happen if Qaddafi retook Benghazi. One adviser said it would be a "mass atrocity," though he stopped short of calling it genocide. Libyan ambassador Gene Cretz, calling in from Paris, informed the president that the United Nations had a report of a hospital in Libya "where the walls were smeared with blood and the bodies had been removed." In addition, Cretz pointed out Qaddafi had "slaughtered 1,200 prisoners he'd taken hostage" during the 1990s. Samantha Power, sitting against the wall, also discussed the potential for an atrocity. Rice, attending the meeting via video teleconference from New York, her face projected on a screen at the end of the room directly opposite the president, chimed in, bringing up "experiences we had in the Nineties," according to a participant in the meeting.

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."

As Rice scrambled to line up votes at the United Nations, Qaddafi and Saif, his son and heir apparent, didn't believe that NATO would actually intervene. Why would the West move to overthrow him after they had reintegrated Libya into the international community? "Qaddafi was genuinely surprised," says Dirk Vandewalle, an expert on Libya who has consulted with both the U.N. and the State Department. "Saif and his father were never really very good at reading accurately where Libya stood in the West. They thought everything was forgiven and forgotten." On March 17th, two nights after the meeting in the Situation Room, Qaddafi went on Libyan television and gave the speech that sealed his fate. His army, he declared, would hunt the rebels down and show "no mercy."

Qaddafi's son Saadi immediately realized that his father had made a major miscalculation. According to Jackie Frazier, an American business consultant who worked for Saadi in Tripoli during the run-up to the war, Saadi leapt into his Jeep, raced to his father's house and begged him to withdraw the threat. "Dad," he pleaded, "you have to take it back." In a last-ditch effort to prevent the U.N. from voting to authorize military intervention, Saadi also tried to get a message out to CNN that Qaddafi would not march on Benghazi.

The next night, according to another American who is close to the Qaddafi family, Saif tried to arrange a phone call with Hillary Clinton, thinking he could talk the Americans out of intervening. But when Saif placed the call, Clinton refused to speak to him – instead, she had Ambassador Cretz call Saif back, telling him to remove all his troops from the cities and to step down from power. Through an American contact, Saif also tried calling Gen. Charles Jacoby, who was involved in drawing up military plans at the Pentagon, but to no avail. Saif and his chief of staff, Mohammed Ismail, laughed off the situation, apparently believing that Obama was simply engaging in the sort of anti-Libya bluster that Reagan had made a staple of American politics. "They didn't get it," says Frazier. "They thought they had been through this before. They thought it was the 1980s."

Once the bombing started, Qaddafi and his sons felt betrayed. "We gave up our nukes and they screwed us," Saif told his dwindling circle of friends. In July, four months into the war, Qaddafi's sons still held out a delusional hope that their father would prevail. "We have an army of 1 million men in the streets," Saadi boasted to Frazier when she visited him in his rooms on the 23rd floor of the Corinthia Hotel in Tripoli – even though Qaddafi's real strength was less than 20,000. "He'd drunk the Kool-Aid," Frazier recalls. Later that night, when a bomb hit near the hotel, Saadi looked out the window and shook his head. "NATO," he muttered.

In his effort to forge a new, more multilateral model for intervention, Obama had succeeded in securing the backing of NATO, the United Nations and the Arab League. But the White House had done little to line up the one U.S. body that is actually vested with the constitutional authority to authorize a war: Congress.

On Friday, March 18th, the president invited 18 congressional leaders to the Oval Office. According to two senior congressional sources with direct knowledge of the meeting, Obama "came into the room, sat down and read some talking points off a paper." Then the president said, "If there are any questions, you can ask my advisers," and left the room.

The congressmen were stunned. "It wasn't a consultation," recalls one staffer. "It was an announcement." Sen. Richard Lugar, a Republican known for his bipartisanship and his expertise on foreign policy, was particularly incensed. He launched into a volley of tough questions: Who's going to pay for the war? How much is it going to cost? What does it mean to Iran, Syria? Clinton and Gates were both present, but the answers they gave didn't satisfy the senator. "They punted all those issues," says a source with direct knowledge of the meeting.

White House officials say that because Congress was on recess that Friday and some lawmakers attended the meeting via phone, Obama could not go into detail about classified portions of the operation. "It's fair to say the president spoke with great precision," says a White House source who attended the meeting. "These are serious actions, and being precise is important." At 10:35 p.m. that night, Obama was wheels-up for a long-scheduled trip to Latin America.

The next day, when Democratic leaders in Congress held a conference call to explain the White House's decision to go to war, a number of Democrats made their displeasure known. According to notes of the meeting, shown to Rolling Stone, Rep. Steny Hoyer, the number-two Democrat in the House, faced fierce resistance as he pitched the White House plan. He kept using the words "limited and discrete," insisting that the U.S. would only be in the lead for a matter of days. But his explanation didn't go over well with some of the Democrats on the call. "How could we do this when we are just years away from WMDs?" complained one. Rep. Brad Sherman pointed to the administration's lack of consultation with Congress over Libya: "It would be ironic to promote democracy there, and lose it here." Toward the end of the call, Rep. Dennis Kucinich piped in: "Is this an impeachable offense?"

The White House pressed ahead. As the bombings began, staffers tried to downplay what was happening in Libya, calling it a "limited kinetic action." Facing increasing criticism, however, the president returned from his trip and gave a prime-time address explaining his decision to the country. The speech, delivered at the National Defense University, was imbued with the language of the humanitarian interventionists. (Hours earlier, Samantha Power had given a speech at Columbia University saying it would be a "stain on our collective conscience" if the U.S. didn't intervene – the same words the president would use later that evening.) "I refused to wait for the images of slaughter and mass graves," Obama said, raising the specter of genocide. He also tried to distinguish his strike against Qaddafi from the "regime change" Bush pursued against Saddam Hussein, insisting that "broadening the mission to include regime change would be a mistake."

Before the speech, the administration also invited another group of outside experts to the White House, in part to "influence the echo chamber," according to a source who attended the meeting. Dennis Ross, a regional director at the National Security Council, insisted that the administration had prevented a "localized genocide." The Pentagon, however, seemed less than enthusiastic about the president's decision. "We're all sitting there in the Roosevelt Room, getting a very thorough briefing from the National Security Council, Treasury, Defense, State, the whole crew," says one person who attended the meeting, "and I remember feeling like the Pentagon didn't have much clarity to their answers. What are the rules of engagement? How do you distinguish between Qaddafi elements and civilian elements you're trying to protect? The biggest gaping hole was: What is the political road map moving forward? How do you avoid a continued implosion and a struggle for power?"

The fact that such critical issues remained unresolved reminded some participants of the rush to war that ended up embroiling the U.S. in both Iraq and Afghanistan. "It's good Qaddafi didn't fall right away," one U.N. official involved in post-intervention planning confided to an insider. "There was no plan ready." Gates complained publicly that the operation was being conducted "on the fly," and initially resisted requests by the administration for more surveillance flights. "The White House kept saying, 'We know you can do this,'" says a Pentagon official involved in Libya planning. "But when it came to some of the assets, we had to push back: 'Actually, no, we can't.'"

Only two years earlier, when Obama had conducted his lengthy review of Afghanistan policy, the Pentagon had taken advantage of the new president's inexperience to win approval for a troop surge. Now, however, Obama was undeterred by the military's opposition. He had gone against Gates on Libya, and he would do so again a month later when he decided to send Navy SEALs to kill Osama bin Laden. (Gates had wanted to use an airstrike.) This time, despite the defense secretary's grumbling, the Pentagon followed Obama's lead. Within 72 hours of receiving his orders, the military had halted Qaddafi's advance with missiles fired from U.S. submarines and destroyers.

In the early days of the war, the administration was also careful to keep its distance from the rebel leadership, not wanting to make the mistake of backing a single faction within the Libyan opposition. "The White House didn't want to do anything until Tripoli fell," says a Libyan source. In May, when Mahmoud Jibril made a trip to the White House, he wasn't allowed to speak with the president. Instead, he met with Donilon, who frustrated the Libyan leader by referring to the National Transitional Council only as "an" interlocutor of the Libyan people, rather than "the" interlocutor. The behavior of the White House, according to a Lib­yan opposition source, was simultaneously "bold and timid."

But as the war dragged on, the administration finally acknowledged the NTC, which waged an intensive lobbying campaign with the help of two prominent Washington firms, Patton Boggs and the Harbour Group. Three weeks after they were rebuffed by Donilon, Hillary Clinton referred to the NTC as "the legitimate interlocutor" during a meeting in Abu Dhabi. And the next month, in a meeting in Istanbul, the United States officially recognized the rebel leadership as the voice of the Libyan people.

At the same time, the administration was increasingly criticized for its failure to follow the War Powers Act, which requires the White House to get congressional approval for any military action within 90 days. The White House argued that NATO operations in Libya did not involve "sustained fighting or active exchanges of fire with hostile forces, nor do they involve U.S. ground troops" – but Congress wasn't buying it. In June, the House passed a largely symbolic measure that formally rebuked the president for failing to consult Congress. Kucinich, meanwhile, was working behind the scenes to try to persuade Qaddafi to step aside. "There was a very real chance of opening up talks," Kucinich says. "But it became abundantly clear that there was no interest on the part of the administration to settle this peacefully. There were too many other interests – oil markets and NATO fighting for its viability. It's quite regrettable."

The administration knew it was paying the price for a war that seemed to have no end in sight. "We thought it was going to be quick," a White House source acknowledged. As the costs mounted, Clinton made at least nine trips overseas, working feverishly to keep European and Arab allies onboard. "Some wanted to scale down the ambition of the effort or look for an exit strategy," says a State Department official. "She kept telling them to stick with it."

Over the course of seven months, America spent $1 billion on the war in Libya. As NATO flew more than 22,000 sorties, including hundreds of bombing runs and drone strikes, the goal of the war quickly morphed from a limited desire to protect civilians into a more sweeping and aggressive push for regime change.

By the time Tripoli fell on August 24th, it was understood in the White House that the real test of its policy in Libya was just beginning. "The big lesson from Iraq, to state the obvious, wasn't so much whether we could defeat Saddam," says a senior administration official. "It was the day after, the year after, the decade after. It was about whether we could secure the peace." Avoiding another Iraq-style mess was clearly on the administration's mind when Obama marked the fall of Tripoli with a simple press conference. There was no strutting aboard an aircraft carrier, no Mission Accomplished speech – just a few words from the president during his family vacation on Martha's Vineyard. "All of this was done without putting a single U.S. troop on the ground," he said, while carefully acknowledging "the huge challenges ahead."

As the White House knows, there is still a real possibility of it all unraveling in Libya, just as it did after initial victories in Afghanistan and Iraq. Some of Qaddafi's top henchmen have already taken up positions of power within the new government, as have elements with ties to radical Islamist groups. Even Bernard-Henri Lévy, who describes the new Libyan government as "heroic," has cautioned that a few rebel leaders are "not angels." But Islam will inevitably be a part of any truly democratic regime that emerges from the Arab Spring, which leaves the White House with a paradox: Either fuel radical Islamic movements by supporting dictators like Qaddafi and Mubarak, or support faltering and ugly attempts at democracy that will almost certainly empower radicalized Islamic elements that express hatred toward the West.

Six months after Clinton met Mahmoud Jibril in Paris, Obama greeted him in New York – as the interim prime minister of Libya, a country with full international recognition, taking its seat at the United Nations. Two years earlier, it was Qaddafi who had stolen the show at the U.N. on his first visit to New York with a rambling, 90-minute diatribe against the West. Now the spotlight belonged to the men who had deposed him. For Obama and his advisers, it was a moment of deep satisfaction. The president had led America into a new kind of war, one with the full support and participation of the international community – "the anti-Iraq," as Lévy calls it. The White House has no illusions about the risks that remain in Libya: Even if the rebels manage to make a successful transition to democracy, the country could still be roiled by extremist jihadists or other Islamic factions hostile to the United States. "Qaddafi is going to fall eventually," a senior administration official told me shortly before the regime collapsed. "The question is: What demons are waiting that we don't yet know about?" But whatever demons lie ahead in Libya, America, for once, will not be solely responsible for having unleashed them – or for exorcising them.

This story is from the October 27, 2011 issue of Rolling Stone.

From The Archives Issue 1142: October 27, 2011
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