“We were opposed to doing something symbolic — that was the worst of both worlds,” said one of the aides. “We would have crossed the threshold [of intervention] without accomplishing anything.”
Clinton had drawn up a list of conditions that included a formal request by Arab states for intervention. On March 12, the 22-nation Arab League did exactly that, voting to ask for U.N. approval of a military no-fly zone over Libya.
The next day, March 13, Clinton traveled to Paris for a meeting with foreign ministers from the Group of Eight countries. In the marbled conference rooms of Paris’s Westin Hotel, she sat down for the first time with Mahmoud Jibril, the interim leader of Libya’s fledgling Transitional National Council. She also met privately with Persian Gulf diplomats to gauge Arab willingness to send warplanes to enforce a possible no-fly zone. And she huddled with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, whose country’s veto potentially could block any intervention effort at the United Nations.
“When she went to Paris, there were no instructions from the White House on whether to support strong action in Libya,” said a senior State Department official, who explained that no consensus had been reached within the national security cabinet at the time. Yet, within three days, the official said, Clinton began to see a way forward.
“This was an opportunity for the United States to respond to an Arab request for help,” the official said. “It would increase U.S. standing in the Arab world, and it would send an important signal for the Arab Spring movement.”
By March 15, when Clinton spoke with Obama by phone to brief him on the meetings, she had become a “strong advocate” for U.S. intervention, one administration official said. The president, who had been weighing arguments from a sharply divided Cabinet for several days, sided with his secretary of state.
Clinton was halfway across the Atlantic on March 17 when a resolution went before the U.N. Security Council authorizing a Libyan intervention with “all necessary means” — U.N. code for military force. From the plane, Clinton worked the phones while the administration’s ambassador to the United Nations, Susan Rice, met with counterparts to line up votes and to ensure that both Russia and China would withhold their vetoes.
The resolution passed, 10 to 0, with five countries abstaining.