Inside Obama's War Room

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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.

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