Obama's shift toward military action in Libya

By Scott Wilson and Joby Warrick
Saturday, March 19, 2011; 7:59 PM

After two weeks of playing down the prospect of military intervention in Libya, the Obama administration is on the brink of inserting itself into a third war in a Muslim nation - something the president, who has spent the first half of his term mending America's relationship with Islam, had hoped to avoid.

The administration's shift from skepticism to support for military intervention in Libya occurred over a frenetic week of war and diplomacy in Washington and Paris, at the United Nations and inside Libya, where facts on the ground changed swiftly.

Libya's rebel forces dissolved far more quickly than administration officials had anticipated, despite warnings of their weakness from the director of national intelligence. In addition, the Arab League's call for a U.N.-led military operation in Libya gave momentum to the administration's search for international support, particularly by convincing some nations facing strong internal dissent of their own to act.

Inside an administration criticized for its cautious approach to the change sweeping the greater Middle East, the turning point came Tuesday evening when Obama, after returning from a dinner honoring combat commanders, reconvened his senior national security staff in the Situation Room.

Following a two-hour meeting, administration officials say, Obama directed his ambassador to the United Nations, Susan Rice, to seek Security Council approval for a resolution that would authorize military intervention beyond a no-fly zone after concluding that such a limited mission would not be enough to slow Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi's forces. The final resolution authorizes "all measures necessary" to protect civilians.

"What he said was, 'If we're really serious about supporting something that's effective, we need to help shape a broader resolution in New York,' " said Ben Rhodes, the deputy national security adviser for strategic communications. "The president recognized the urgency of the situation, making the analytical point that we needed a broader concept."

Obama's decision to participate in military operations marks a victory for a faction of liberal interventionists within the administration, including Rice, Rhodes and National Security Council senior directors Samantha Power and Gayle Smith.

Some of them were shaped by U.S. inaction in Rwanda and the Balkans in the 1990s - as officials in previous administrations or as journalists - and saw in Libya's civil conflict a moral imperative to prevent mass killings as Gaddafi retook rebel-held areas and threatened reprisal against those who did not surrender.

The internal divide

Among those most skeptical of another military commitment for over-stretched U.S. forces were Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, National Security Adviser Thomas E. Donilon and his deputy, Denis R. McDonough, who are known within the administration as pragmatists highly protective of the president.

Those officials expressed concern that a no-fly option would be insufficient to push back Gaddafi and that carrying it out would probably be borne by the United States alone, something they wanted to avoid in a region where the United States is held in low regard.

Initially wary of military intervention, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton shifted her view after traveling in Europe and North Africa over the past week, seeing firsthand the international support for and willingness to participate in such a mission.

"This is the divide," said a former administration official, who requested anonymity to discuss the internal White House debate. "It's been a pretty central divide in the administration, between a kind of traditional, realpolitik definition of interests . . . and a view that, interestingly, is much more consistent with the forces that got Obama elected."

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