“It nearly broke up the coalition,” said a European diplomat who had a front-row seat to the events and who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive matters between allies. Yet the rift was quickly patched, thanks to a frenzied but largely unseen lobbying effort that kept the coalition from unraveling in its opening hours.
“That,” the diplomat said, “was Hillary.”
Seven months later, with longtime U.S. nemesis Moammar Gaddafi dead and Libya’s onetime rebels now in charge, the coalition air campaign has emerged as a foreign policy success for the Obama administration and its most famous Cabinet member, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.
Some Republicans derided the effort as “leading from behind,” while many others questioned why President Obama was entangling the nation in another overseas military campaign that had little strategic urgency and scant public support. But with NATO operations likely to end this week, U.S. officials and key allies are offering a detailed new defense of the approach and Clinton’s pivotal role — both within a divided Cabinet and a fragile, assembled-on-the-fly international alliance.
What emerges from these accounts is a picture of Clinton using her mixture of political pragmatism and tenacity to referee spats among NATO partners, secure crucial backing from Arab countries and tutor rebels on the fine points of message management.
Clinton, in an interview, acknowledged “periods of anguish and buyer’s remorse” during the seven months of the campaign. But, she said, “we set into motion a policy that was on the right side of history, on the right side of our values, on the right side of our strategic interests in the region.”
From skeptic to advocate
During the initial weeks of unrest in Libya, Clinton was among the White House officials clinging to fading hopes that Gaddafi might fall without any help from the West.
From the first armed resistance on Feb. 18 until March 9, the disorganized opposition movement appeared to be on a roll, taking control of Libyan cities from Benghazi to Brega and Misurata on the Mediterranean coast. But in a single, bloody week, Gaddafi loyalists turned rebel gains into a rout, crushing resistance in towns across Libya before marshaling forces for a final drive against Benghazi, the last opposition stronghold.
With Gaddafi threatening to slaughter Benghazi’s population “like rats,” the rebel leaders pleaded for Western intervention, including a no-fly zone. The appeal garnered support in Europe, particularly among French and British officials who began working on the text of a U.N. Security Council resolution that would authorize the use of military force against the Libyan autocrat.