Inside Obama's War Room

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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.

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