Inside Obama's War Room

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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?"

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