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.
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