White House caution in response to Gaddafi's actions was guided by fears for the safety of Americans in Libya

American evacuees waited days to board ferry bound for Malta to leave Libya and Judith Drotar, director at the American school in Libya, spoke about the tumultuous journey.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 27, 2011; 12:00 AM

As President Obama and his advisers measured their response to the mass killing in Libya over the past week, they were mindful of one particular scene unfolding thousands of miles away.

The U.S. Embassy and other diplomatic posts in Tripoli, reopened only five years ago, comprise a series of lightly protected compounds and trailers. The guards there were Libyan, not the U.S. Marines posted outside most embassies. And an armed and angry Libyan opposition was approaching the city from the east, as hundreds of Americans awaited evacuation across rough seas.

Administration officials said the diplomats in Tripoli told them that, in the words of one official, "certain kinds of messaging from the American government could endanger the security of American citizens." There were fears that Americans could be taken hostage.

"Overruling that kind of advice would be a very difficult and dangerous thing to do," said Ben Rhodes, the deputy national security adviser for strategic communications.

"That was the debate, and frankly we erred on the side of caution, for certain, and at the cost of some criticism," he continued. "But when you're sitting in government and you're told that ignoring that advice could endanger American citizens, that's a line you don't feel very comfortable crossing."

The Obama administration's quiet response to the atrocities in Libya left even reliable supporters stunned by its lack of force and plodding pace.

But officials now say that their previous public posture belied feverish diplomatic work and a head-versus-heart debate that played out in the White House Situation Room, where the immediate threat to Americans and the far-reaching lessons of the failed international efforts to end violence in Bosnia, Rwanda and Iraq have guided the recommendations the president has received.

Among those most involved in conceiving the administration's response is a cadre of senior advisers who, as journalists, lawyers, academics and public officials, have worked for years on the subject of governments who kill their people and how to stop them.

They have vowed not to make the same mistakes that past American administrations committed in the face of mass killings, even as critics argue the Obama White House already erred by staying quiet as the death toll mounted.

Senior administration officials say the financial sanctions Obama announced Friday evening - after a plane carrying a last batch of Americans left Libya for safety - marked only the first in a range of steps that could include military options should Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi step up his violent campaign. On Saturday, in a telephone call with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Obama echoed European leaders' demands that Gaddafi must step down.

"This is already breaking with precedent in many important ways," said Samantha Power, the National Security Council's senior director for multilateral affairs and human rights. "Normally, when a government starts targeting its own people, it takes longer for the U.S. to open its tool box and deploy tools that have bite. We have already seen a preparedness to scale the ladder of escalation."

In addition to Power - who as a journalist wrote the Pulitzer Prize-winning survey of the American response to genocide called "A Problem from Hell" - Vice President Biden, U.N. Ambassador Susan E. Rice, and the State Department's Michael E. Posner and Harold Koh have all worked on the subject of mass killing for decades, produced critical assessments of the U.S. approach, and have been among the country's loudest voices in favor of sanctions, war crimes prosecutions, no-fly zones and other military measures to stop them.

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