By Scott Wilson
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.
The head of Obama's newly created NSC office responsible for war crimes, atrocities and civilian protection, David Pressman, is a New York University law school graduate who once clerked for the Supreme Court of Rwanda.
During a speech Thursday at the Holocaust Memorial Museum, Biden criticized the slow U.S. response in the Balkans and said that "when a state engages in atrocity, it forfeits its sovereignty."
It was the pedigree of Obama's team that made his public passivity particularly hard to understand.
In the first days of the uprising in Libya, Obama condemned the killings through a written statement read by his press secretary, Jay Carney. Obama only uttered his first public words on the issue Wednesday evening from the White House Grand Foyer, avoiding any mention of Gaddafi by name.
"You usually expect the United States to take action and the Europeans to make statements," Tom Malinowski, the Washington director of Human Rights Watch, said last week before the sanctions were announced. "So far, though, that seems reversed."
Behind the scenes, officials say they have been drawing lessons from past genocides. From Cambodia through the Balkans, the international failures to stop mass killings have shared several common elements, including a failure to develop a coherent international response.
As Obama called world leaders, Rice, at the United Nations, worked to ensure that the Security Council adopted a strong resolution against the violence. It did so unanimously, with some nations, including Lebanon and India, urging an even harsher tone, and on Saturday adopted a wide-ranging set of economic and military sanctions and referral of the Libyan violence to the International Criminal Court. The African Union and the Arab League also rallied behind a rare rebuke of a charter member.
"Certainly, if we were sniping at one another or revealing divergent interests, Gaddafi would likely take that as a green light," said Power, who cited divisions at the United Nations and between the United States and European allies in confronting genocide in Rwanda and Bosnia.
Administration officials and outside scholars say previous U.S. governments have tended to narrow the range of possible responses to mass killings to either military intervention or doing nothing.
Power said that "what was most heartbreaking about Rwanda," where an estimated 800,000 people were slaughtered during a several-month spasm of ethnic violence in 1994, was not why countries didn't invade, but why more actions, short of war, were not tried.
Among other options, she listed radio-frequency jamming, expelling the country's ambassador from the United Nations, freezing assets, imposing an arms embargo, implementing a travel ban on officials, and threatening war crimes prosecution.
Some of those measures are already in place in the case of Libya, in part because European leaders have pushed them hard publicly since the uprising began.
"What we have tried to do is tee up, as quickly as possible, every possible policy option available to the president," said Rhodes, adding that those options include military, diplomatic and economic plans to isolate and pressure Gaddafi.
The options are emerging from the so-called deputies committee, run by deputy national security adviser Denis McDonough. Administration officials say the high-level process, operated daily out of the West Wing, is intended to prevent the official neglect that marked past U.S. responses to mass killings.
During the 100-day genocide in Rwanda, the Clinton administration held only one deputies meeting on the crisis. Clinton later apologized to Rwanda for failing to act.
Administration officials acknowledge that the planning and diplomacy are more difficult with military options, including a no-fly zone designed to prevent Gaddafi from dispatching warplanes to bomb the regions of Libya now under opposition control.
How to raise support for such a measure when China, a veto-holding member of the U.N. Security Council, is likely to oppose it because of the precedent it could set, remains an open question within the administration.
But administration officials recall how the world finally rallied after years of delay to use military power in the Balkans.
In 1995, then-Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright produced satellite photos of the disturbed earth outside the once U.N.-protected enclave of Srebrenica in northeastern Bosnia, providing concrete evidence of mass graves. The photos, Power said, "jarred loose the international consensus that hadn't been there before on the use of military force."
Obama has now ordered the intelligence community to reallocate satellites, eavesdropping resources and other intelligence assets to Libya. One administration official said, "The message to Gaddafi is, 'We're watching you.'???"
"Historians will decide over time whether our overall response was sufficient," said a senior administration official who requested anonymity to share a personal opinion. "But I don't think the judgment will be that Gaddafi would have listened to us had we only spoken out more forcefully while our people were still in Libya.
"More forceful words earlier would have spared us a lot of heartburn with the media, but I have yet to hear the argument that they would have stopped the violence," the official continued. "Even with all these things we've laid out, Gaddafi has long made clear he has a will of his own."