Why the U.S. Went to War: Inside the White House Debate on Libya

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Christopher Morris/VII for TIME

President Barack Obama says he’s intervening to prevent atrocities in Libya. But details of behind-the-scenes debates at the White House show he’s going to war in part to rehabilitate an idea.

Three weeks ago, I posted an article headlined, “Will Obama Order U.S. Intervention in Libya?” It began: “It seems preposterous to suggest in the wake of Iraq that the U.S. might intervene militarily to help bring down another Arab regime. But the growing danger of a humanitarian catastrophe created by Muammar Gaddafi in Libya, combined with a surprisingly broad confluence of interests, has crisis watchers inside and outside the administration seeing the telltale signs of a conflict that could compel Obama into action.”

My main argument was that if Gaddafi committed large-scale human rights violations against his own people he would provide an opening to those in the administration who wanted to rehabilitate the doctrine of humanitarian intervention eight years after the Iraq war discredited U.S.-led military actions abroad. As it turns out, Gaddafi hasn’t done enough to justify humanitarian intervention—despite their rhetoric to the contrary, the administration and human rights organizations admit that reports of potential war crimes remain unconfirmed. Instead, interviews with senior administration officials show that the rehabilitators convinced Obama to go to war not just to prevent atrocities Gaddafi might (or might not) commit but also to bolster America’s ability to intervene elsewhere in the future. (More on Time.com: See images from TIME’s photographer on the ground in Tripoli)

That isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The ability for the U.S. to muster international force to prevent thugs from killing innocent people is important. But the president and some of his advisers are so eager to rehabilitate the idea of preventive intervention that they’re exaggerating the violence they say they are intervening to prevent in Libya. “The effort to shoe-horn this into an imminent genocide model is strained,” says one senior administration official. That’s dangerous. Americans deserve an honest explanation when their leaders take them to war. Moreover, the rhetorical focus on the crazy things Gaddafi might do obscures the debate America should have before intervening: does the value of preventing possible war crimes against Libyans outweigh the risks to America’s national security that come with intervening?

Obama and his aides know they are taking a big risk. “It’s a huge gamble,” says the senior administration official. The administration knows, for example, that al Qaeda, which has active cells in Libya, will try to exploit the power vacuum that will come with a weak or ousted Gaddafi. They also know that the U.S. will have to rely on other countries for the crucial task of rebuilding Libya and that the region may in fact be further destabilized by intervention. Outweighing that, the National Security Council’s Ben Rhodes says, are the long-term benefits of saving lives, protecting the possibility of democratic change elsewhere in the region and—tellingly—ensuring “the ability of collective action to be a tool in circumstances like this.”

One of the strongest voices in America for the idea of collective action to prevent war crimes is Samantha Power, a senior director at the National Security Council. In late 2006, Power told me that international humanitarian intervention had been “killed for a generation” by the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Then a professor at Harvard best known for her Pulitzer prize-winning history of America’s response to genocide (a book she wrote after covering the wars in Bosnia and Croatia and studying the genocide in Rwanda) Power was a strong believer in international intervention to prevent war crimes. Like many others, she was frustrated that the cause of preventing genocide had been undermined by George W. Bush’s unilateral intervention in Iraq, which discredited U.S. military action abroad and made building coalitions to stop war crimes seemingly impossible.

But the Libyan uprising gave the humanitarian interventionists an unexpected reprieve. The universal hatred of Gaddafi in the Arab world, Europe’s energy interests, fears of regional instability and the backdrop of Arab democratic uprisings provided interventionists in Washington unlikely allies at home and abroad. Power has argued from the start of the Libyan uprising that the U.S. needed to be prepared to intervene to prevent humanitarian atrocities. She was joined in this argument by Susan Rice, Obama’s ambassador to the United Nations who was in the Clinton administration during the Rwanda genocide. As early as February, a senior official told me, supporters of intervention were “laying the predicate” for military force.

Obama has espoused the interventionists’ position in the past. In his Nobel peace prize acceptance speech, he said, “More and more, we all confront difficult questions about how to prevent the slaughter of civilians by their own government, or to stop a civil war whose violence and suffering can engulf an entire region. I believe that force can be justified on humanitarian grounds, as it was in the Balkans, or in other places that have been scarred by war. Inaction tears at our conscience and can lead to more costly intervention later. That is why all responsible nations must embrace the role that militaries with a clear mandate can play to keep the peace.” (More on Time.com: See pictures of the battle for Libya)

But on issues like closing Guantanamo Bay and trying terrorism suspects in civilian courts, Obama has abandoned previously stated principles when facing opposition from the defense department, the intelligence community and hawkish close advisors. In this case, the Pentagon was again positioned against Obama’s principles. “On the military side there was a lot of skepticism in the initial days that a no-fly zone by itself was going to achieve what we wanted militarily,” says a senior administration official. Another senior administration official is blunter: “[Secretary of Defense Robert] Gates tried to stop it.”

This time, Obama used the military’s arguments against them. Last Tuesday at 4 pm, Obama convened a meeting of his top advisors to decide whether the U.S. should support a U.N. resolution tabled by Lebanon supporting a no-fly zone in Libya. Rice, Power and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton supported the resolution. The president listened to concerns from the Pentagon and his top national security advisors that a no-fly zone would not prevent violence against civilians. But he did not abandon the idea.

After the meeting, Obama had dinner with his combatant commanders and discussed intervention. Later that evening, at 9 pm, he reconvened the National Security Council, and after a two hour meeting, tasked Rice with trying to get U.N. approval for tougher action. On Thursday, she delivered a resolution with broad support for “all measures necessary” to protect civilians.

The next day, Obama said the U.S. was intervening in Libya not just to prevent attacks by Gaddafi on civilians but to set a precedent. If Gaddafi were not stopped, he said, “the words of the international community would be rendered hollow.” Maybe the administration will get lucky: intervention could set Libya on the road to democratic development and help continue the political change sweeping the region. Most importantly for the rehabilitators, perhaps it will bring new credibility for the idea of humanitarian intervention. But even those administration officials who most want to see the return of humanitarian intervention realize how big the stakes are. “I’m praying that this works,” says one.