The Cable

How Obama turned on a dime toward war

At the start of this week, the consensus around Washington was that military action against Libya was not in the cards. However, in the last several days, the White House completely altered its stance and successfully pushed for the authorization for military intervention against Libyan leader Col. Muammar al-Qaddafi. What changed?

The key decision was made by President Barack Obama himself at a Tuesday evening senior-level meeting at the White House, which was described by two administration officials as "extremely contentious." Inside that meeting, officials presented arguments both for and against attacking Libya. Obama ultimately sided with the interventionists. His overall thinking was described to a group of experts who had been called to the White House to discuss the crisis in Libya only days earlier.

"This is the greatest opportunity to realign our interests and our values," a senior administration official said at the meeting, telling the experts this sentence came from Obama himself. The president was referring to the broader change going on in the Middle East and the need to rebalance U.S. foreign policy toward a greater focus on democracy and human rights.

But Obama's stance in Libya differs significantly from his strategy regarding the other Arab revolutions. In Egypt and Tunisia, Obama chose to rebalance the American stance gradually backing away from support for President Hosni Mubarak and Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali and allowing the popular movements to run their course. In Yemen and Bahrain, where the uprisings have turned violent, Obama has not even uttered a word in support of armed intervention - instead pressing those regimes to embrace reform on their own. But in deciding to attack Libya, Obama has charted an entirely new strategy, relying on U.S. hard power and the use of force to influence the outcome of Arab events.

"In the case of Libya, they just threw out their playbook," said Steve Clemons, the foreign policy chief at the New America Foundation. "The fact that Obama pivoted on a dime shows that the White House is flying without a strategy and that we have a reactive presidency right now and not a strategic one."

Inside the administration, senior officials were lined up on both sides. Pushing for military intervention was a group of NSC staffers including Samantha Power, NSC senior director for multilateral engagement; Gayle Smith, NSC senior director for global development; and Mike McFaul, NSC senior director for Russia. . 

On the other side of the ledger were some Obama administration officials who were reportedly wary of the second- and third-degree effects of committing to a lengthy military mission in Libya. These officials included National Security Advisor Tom Donilon and Deputy National Security Advisor Denis McDonough. Defense Secretary Robert Gates was also opposed to attacking Libya and had said as much in several public statements.

Not all of these officials were in Tuesday night's meeting.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called into the meeting over the phone, a State Department official confirmed. She was traveling in the region to get a first-hand look at how the new U.S. Middle East strategy is being received across the Arab world. Denied a visit with Egyptian youth leaders on the same day she strolled through Tahir Square, Clinton may have been concerned that the United States was losing the battle for the hearts and minds of the Arab youth at the heart of the revolution.

When Clinton met with the G8 foreign ministers on Monday, she didn't lay out whether the United States had a favored response to the unfolding crisis in Libya, leaving her European counterparts completely puzzled. She met Libyan opposition leader Mahmoud Jibril in Paris but declined to respond positively to his request for assistance. This all gave the impression that Clinton was resisting intervention. In fact, she supported intervention, State Department official said, but had to wait until the Tuesday night meeting so that she didn't get out ahead of U.S. policy.

At the end of the Tuesday night meeting, Obama gave U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice instructions to go the U.N. Security Council and push for a resolution that would give the international community authority to use force. Her instructions were to get a resolution that would give the international community broad authority to achieve Qaddafi's removal, including the use of force beyond the imposition of a no-fly zone.

Speaking before the U.N. Security Council following Thursday's 10-0 vote, Rice made the humanitarian argument that force was needed in Libya to prevent civilian suffering.

"Colonel Qaddafi and those who still stand by him continue to grossly and systematically abuse the most fundamental human rights of Libya's people," Rice said. "On March 12, the League of Arab States called on the Security Council to establish a no-fly zone and take other measures to protect civilians. Today's resolution is a powerful response to that call-and to the urgent needs on the ground."

U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon also said on Thursday that the justification for the use of force was based on humanitarian grounds, and referred to the principle known as Responsibility to Protect (R2P), "a new international security and human rights norm to address the international community's failure to prevent and stop genocides, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity."

"Resolution 1973 affirms, clearly and unequivocally, the international community's determination to fulfill its responsibility to protect civilians from violence perpetrated upon them by their own government," he said.

Inside the NSC, Power, Smith, and McFaul have been trying to figure out how the administration could implement R2P and what doing so would require of the White House going forward. Donilon and McDonough are charged with keeping America's core national interests more in mind. Obama ultimately sided with Clinton and those pushing R2P -- over the objections of Donilon and Gates.

Congress was not broadly consulted on the decision to intervene in Libya, except in a Thursday afternoon classified briefing where administration officials explained the diplomatic and military plan. Rice was already deep in negotiations in New York.

Obama's Tuesday night decision to push for armed intervention was not only a defining moment in his ever-evolving foreign policy, but also may have marked the end of the alliance between Clinton and Gates -- an alliance that has successfully influenced administration foreign policy decisions dating back to the 2009 Afghanistan strategy review.

"Gates is clearly not on board with what's going on and now the Defense Department may have an entirely another war on its hands that he's not into," said Clemons. "Clinton won the bureaucratic battle to use DOD resources to achieve what's essentially the State Department's objective... and Obama let it happen."

UPDATE: A previous version of this story stated that Vice President Joseph Biden pushed for the imposition of a no fly zone in Libya. Friday afternoon, a senior White House official told The Cable that, in fact, Biden shared the same concerns of Gates, Donilon and McDonough and that those concerns have been addressed by the policy announced by the president. 

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The Cable

Inside classified Hill briefing, administration spells out war plan for Libya

Several administration officials held a classified briefing for all senators on Thursday afternoon in the bowels of the Capitol building, leaving lawmakers convinced President Barack Obama is ready to attack Libya but wondering if it isn't too late to help the rebels there.

Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Bill Burns led the briefing and was accompanied by Alan Pino, National Intelligence Officer for the Near East, Gen. John Landry, National Intelligence Officer for Military Issues, Nate Tuchrello, National Intelligence Manager for Near East, Rear Adm. Michael Rogers, Director of Intelligence for the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Rear Admiral Kurt Tidd, Vice Director of Operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Several senators emerged from the briefing convinced that the administration was intent on beginning military action against the forces of Col. Muammar al-Qaddafi within the next few days and that such action would include both a no-fly zone as well as a "no-drive zone" to prevent Qaddafi from crushing the rebel forces, especially those now concentrated in Benghazi.

"It looks like we have Arab countries ready to participate in a no-fly and no-drive endeavor," Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) told reporters after the briefing.

Asked what he learned from the briefing, Graham said, "I learned that it's not too late, that the opposition forces are under siege but they are holding, and that with a timely intervention, a no-fly zone and no-drive zone, we can turn this thing around."

Asked exactly what the first wave of attacks would look like, Graham said, "We ground his aircraft and some tanks start getting blown up that are headed toward the opposition forces."

As for when the attacks would start, he said "We're talking days, not weeks, and I'm hoping hours, not days," adding that he was told the U.N. Security Council resolution would be crafted to give the international community the authority to be "outcome determinant" and "do whatever's necessary."

The Security Council adopted the resolution on Thursday evening by a vote of 10-0 with 5 abstentions.

Sen. Mark Kirk (R-IL) told reporters that he expected the military operations to be run out of Sicily, where NATO Base Sigonella and U.S. Naval Air Station Sigonella are located.

"I know we have naval assets that are some distance away, so this would have to be U.S. Air Force Europe that would have the majority load for the time being, if the order is given," said Kirk.

Inside the briefing, several senators asked questions about how quickly the no-fly zone could be implemented, whether that was enough to stop Qaddafi's forces, what other military options might be used, and whether the administration had waited too long to act.

"There were concerns about the protection of civilians and one of those concerns was, is it too late," one Senate staffer who was in the meeting told The Cable.

Both Graham and Kirk said that they believed it was not too late, but that the success of the mission depended on super-quick implementation.

"It seems that the administration is moving and now the only question is time," said Kirk. "A lot still depends on the rebels at the very least holding Benghazi. If they do, there may be time for the international political system to respond. If they collapse quickly, no."

Graham and Kirk both said that they had thrown their support behind Obama's new Libya policy.

"I want to take back criticism I gave to them yesterday and say, ‘you are doing the right thing,'" said Graham. "My money is on the American Air Force, the American Navy, and our allies to contain the Libyans, and anybody on our side that says we can't contain the Libyan air threat -- I want them fired."

But Obama lost longtime supporter Sen. Richard Lugar (R-IN) who said in Thursday morning's hearing with Burns that any military intervention in Libya should require a formal declaration of war by the U.S. Congress.

Lugar also opposes military intervention in Libya on the grounds that the nation can't afford it at a time of deep fiscal debt and called on Obama to explain why attacking Libya is in America's national interest. The humanitarian argument just isn't enough, he said.

"We would not like to stand by and see people being shot, but the same argument could be made in Bahrain at present and perhaps in Yemen, so if you have a civil war it's very likely people are going to be out for each other," Lugar told The Cable in an interview. "This debate cannot be totally divorced from the realities of what are the contending issues right here and now."

But Graham responded to Lugar's caution in an interview with The Cable, saying that the risk of doing nothing and allowing Qaddafi to remain in power after Obama said "he must go" is far greater than that of getting involved militarily.

"They have my authorization. You can't have 535 commander in chiefs," Graham said. "I would like to have a vote in the floor when we get back saying they did the right thing. But that shouldn't restrict the president from taking timely action."

At Thursday morning's hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Air Force Chief of Staff Norton Schwartz said that Qaddafi's forces had reestablished control over large swaths of territory and that the Libyan leader had tens of planes and hundreds of helicopters in use.

He called the plan to impose a no-fly zone in a few days "overly optimistic" and said "it would take upwards of a week."

Schwartz was also clear that while the U.S. military can impose a no-fly zone, that's not likely to stop Qaddafi all by itself. He also noted that to do so effectively might require diverting some resources from the missions in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"The question is, is a no-fly zone the last step or is it the first step?" Schwartz said.

Asked by Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) whether a no-fly zone could turn the momentum, Scwartz replied, "A no-fly zone, sir, would not be sufficient."