Obama's First New War

By Marc Ambinder

President Obama had to balance the ideals of democracy and the hard-nosed interests of the country in his decision making.


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As a fleet of French airplanes lacerated a column of Libyan army vehicles near Benghazi on Saturday, President Obama stuck to his prearranged schedule in Brazil, receiving whispered updates from his aides. Within three hours, more than 100 cruise missiles had hit two dozen targets in Libya. That's just "the first phase," William Gortney, the director of the Joint Staff, told reporters.


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What he didn't say: It's the first phase of what will become Barack Obama's first new war. By directing the military to hit targets inside Libya, the Obama administration is trying to strike an incredibly delicate balance between a strong disinclination to invade a Muslim country and their determined desire to avoid looking like they're walking away from the indiscriminate slaughter of innocents.


When Muammar el-Qaddafi first struck back against protesters, Obama hoped that tough sanctions and material support to the opposition would be enough to force the dictator from power. Defense Secretary Robert Gates warned him that a "no fly zone" would be ineffective and essentially commit the country to war. By Monday night, it was clear to Obama that this policy wasn't working. Countries like Iran were getting the wrong message. The Libyan military was selectively testing the patience of the world by striking opposition strongholds. The opposition was pinned down in the port city of Benghazi, swelled by tens of thousands of refugees. Qaddafi kept using a phrase that stuck in Obama's head: "no mercy." And France, smarting from seeming to abandon Egyptians during their time of trouble, along with the U.K., were champing at the bit to use force. The Arab League had kicked Libya out and was closer to the French position. It risked its own legitimacy, already questioned by many in the region, if it didn't side with the rebels.

On Tuesday, during a meeting of his national security team, Obama said he wanted a new policy. "Clearly, what we're doing is not enough," he said, according to contemporaneous notes kept by a participant. A "humanitarian disaster" was imminent unless something was done. He wanted more options.

Gates wanted to game out scenarios, knowing that any effective no-fly zone would necessitate a cascade of other military actions that would look a heck of a lot like an invasion, no matter how carefully it was done.

Thomas Donilon, the national security adviser and one of the gatekeepers of Obama's foreign policy, was worried about the strategic implications of both allowing Qaddafi to succeed in retaking control of Benghazi as well as what would happen down the road in other countries if a successful military response ousted him from power with a minimum of bloodshed. Even the lightest military footprint would result in civilian casualties, he warned. Almost as inevitable would be the death of a coalition soldier or the downing of an airplane.

Hillary Rodham Clinton said instability in Libya threatened to clip the democratic aspirations of its two neighbors, Egypt and Tunisia. She was also worried about the message to Iran if the U.S. and its allies did nothing in Libya: America was so afraid of committing its military to protect Muslims and Arabs that it would allow virtually anything to happen.

The meeting broke up.

Donilon would take charge of a rapid-fire series of conference calls and meetings and would, by that night, bring to the president three new policy proposals, each of which would call for a mix of diplomatic, military and intelligence actions against Libya. Obama had dinner with his combat commanders, and solicited their input about what challenges the military would face. At 9 p.m. that night, he reconvened only his principals. (Clinton was represented by her deputy, James Steinberg.) Donilon laid out his proposals. After about an hour, the Situation Room had come to a rough consensus: a no fly zone wouldn't work, but more words would not work either. Obama instructed his U.N. ambassador, Susan Rice, to inform the Security Council that France's resolution, which called for a no fly zone and little else, was insufficient. He asked the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Mike Mullen, to turn into him by the next evening a Concept of Operation Plan, or CONPLAN, for a NATO-executed military campaign in Libya that would be assisted by Arab countries.

In closed session at the U.N., Rice laid out the U.S. position. The situation was urgent and dire. But the world had to know precisely what it would mean to keep Libyan troops from murdering their own citizens. Any resolution would have to include language authorizing strikes against Libyan military infrastructure on the ground to prevent a humanitarian catastrophe. "We are not going to hide pooch," Rice said in the meeting, according to a U.S. official. "We must be completely clear about what we are going to do and why." And Arab countries must participate, she insisted, in some visible way, in the campaign. She proposed a number of amendments that added significant heft to the resolution.

For the next 24 hours, Clinton and Rice tag-teamed Arab countries and members of the Security Council. They argued that if nothing was done, despots and beleaguered leaders everywhere would vow never to repeat the "mistake" of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, who yielded power without foreign military intervention. Iran, in particular, would find itself with an incentive to continue to spread its proxy forces to other countries and further repress its own citizens. And Rice has made the reinvigoration of the United Nations one of her prime goals as ambassador. The legitimacy of that body was at stake too, she argued.

On Wednesday, at about 6:30 p.m., Mullen and Donilon presented Obama with their CONPLAN for Libya. Its contents are mostly classified; an official said the air strikes on Saturday were one part of a larger campaign that includes a variety of overt and covert actions. Published reports suggest that U.K. special operations forces were secreted in the country, scouting out the battlefield in preparation for air strikes. The U.S. Air Force Special Operations Command moved several tactical air teams to a small base on Crete. In order to try and disguise their movements, the U.S. planes changed their call signs once they entered airspace over the Mediterranean, but commercial software that tracks their transponders revealed the shift, and word leaked out on Twitter. These teams would coordinate the air assault but are capable of parachuting into a region and directing them from the ground.

On Friday, the U.S. moved a Rivet Joint signals intelligence plane to Souda Air Base on a Greek Island, bearing the provocative call sign of "SNOOP 55." Subs capable of launching Tomahawk missiles idled near Italy. The USS Florida, armed with more than 100 Tomahawks, moved into firing range. Twenty four hours after the U.S. introduced its amendments, it got its resolution, 10-0. Obama spoke with his counterparts in France and the UK and agreed that they'd give Qadaffi 24 hours to turn heel and retreat. If he didn't, France would begin the bombardment.

It was important to the U.S. that Libyans and the world understand that this coalition of the willing was more than a U.S. rhetorical construct. An hour before bombing began Saturday, Clinton spoke to the press in Paris. Asked why military action was in America's interest, she gave three reasons and implied a fourth. A destabilizing force would jeopardize progress in Tunisia and Egypt; a humanitarian disaster was imminent unless prevented; Qaddafi could not flout international law without consequences. The fourth: there's a line now, and one that others countries had better not cross.

The development of a new doctrine in the Middle East is taking form, and it could become a paradigm for how the international community deals with unrest across the region from now on. The new elements include the direct participation of the Arab world, the visible participation of U.S. allies, as well as a very specific set of military targets designed to forestall needless human suffering. Though the Libyan situation is quite unique - its military is nowhere near as strong as Iran's is, for one thing - Obama hopes that a short, surgical, non-US-led campaign with no ground troops will satisfy Americans skeptical about military intervention and will not arouse the suspicions of Arabs and Muslims that the U.S. is attempting to influence indigenously growing democracies.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2011/03/obamas-first-new-war/72746/