Book Excerpt: Inside Obama’s Situation Room
The following is an excerpt from Mother Jones Washington bureau chief David Corn’s new book Showdown: The Inside Story of How Obama Fought Back Against Boehner, Cantor, and the Tea Party published by William Morrow.
On March 15, 2011, President Obama and his top aides settled into their seats in the Sit Room for a National Security Council meeting. The forces of Libyan leader Muammar al- Qaddafi were on a roll. The ragtag rebels seeking to topple the dictator had wrested control of Libyan cities on the Mediterranean. But now Qaddafi troops were gaining momentum, and casualties were mounting.
The White House was receiving chilling accounts of the violence transpiring in areas seized by Qaddafi loyalists, and government forces were poised to overrun Ajdabiya, a town that supplied fuel and water to Benghazi, the rebel stronghold in the east. If Qaddafi’s soldiers succeeded there, Benghazi would likely fall next. And if Qaddafi took Benghazi, the uprising could be crushed. Worse, a massacre could follow. A bloodbath loomed.
The president asked how soon Qaddafi’s troops could be in Benghazi. The answer: forty-eight to seventy-two hours.
Prior to the meeting, various options had been prepared for the president, including US forces supporting a proposed no fly zone over Libya that was being pushed by European allies. Obama turned to Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs: “Would a no- fly zone do anything to stop this scenario?”
“No, sir,” Mullen replied. “It wouldn’t stop the advance of Qaddafi’s forces.”
The government troops were using tanks and ground launched weapons against the rebels, not air power. Preventing Qaddafi’s warplanes from attacking would do little to protect the rebels and civilians in Benghazi.
“So why are we discussing this?” Obama asked.
The president set aside the papers that had been drafted for the meeting. None of this, he said, will stop possibly thousands of people from being butchered on our watch.
“Give me real options,” he said.
Obama knew there was a divide within his administration. Traditionalists did not favor military action, believing there was no paramount US interest at stake. Others, particularly several senior NSC staffers, saw Libya as a case demanding military action designed not to advance a realpolitik interest but to prevent a slaughter.
Robert Gates noted that he was not keen to have another war in a Muslim nation. He was already managing two. He wondered how the United States could limit its engagement in Libya. He and others at the Pentagon worried they would be forced to shift resources from Afghanistan, which would make it harder to stick to a planned drawdown of US forces there.
Mullen also was not in favor of intervention—nor was Biden, Donilon, and McDonough. They all supported some sort of response but were skeptical of direct US military involvement. Some aides asked, Did Obama want to be sucked into another military action when his number one job was to do something about the ailing economy?
Hillary Clinton and Susan Rice, the US ambassador to the United Nations, backed aggressive action. Clinton’s earlier public comments had suggested she did not support military intervention, but recently she had been pushing internally for a more assertive stance.
Clinton, who was calling into the meeting from Egypt, believed that Libya’s instability could interfere with the democratic transitions in neighboring Egypt and Tunisia. Permitting Qaddafi to smash the uprising in his country, she argued, would send the wrong message to Iran. She also said she’d recently received assurances that Arab governments, particularly the United Arab Emirates, were willing to participate in military action against Qaddafi.
This time the Americans would not be barreling into another Muslim country on their own. During the Egyptian crisis, the Saudis had constantly complained to administration officials that Washington was unduly throwing Mubarak out. Now the message from the region was different: feel free to get rid of Qaddafi for us.
Rice, speaking via a video connection from New York, urged direct attacks on Qaddafi’s tanks and artillery. She had served on President Clinton’s NSC in 1994 when the United States did little to stop the genocide in Rwanda. Months after the mass killings there, she visited the country and walked through a churchyard where a massacre had occurred. Decomposing bodies were still strewn about. Stepping around those corpses would always be a searing reminder for her.
In her first major speech as UN ambassador, Rice declared the administration’s support for Responsibility to Protect—R2P, as foreign policy mavens called it. This principle holds that governments have a fundamental obligation to protect their populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing, and the like—and that other states must take collective action if a nation cannot meet this fundamental responsibility. Qaddafi had killed thousands of his own citizens over his forty- two- year rule. It was clear what would happen to the people of rebellious Benghazi.
The massacres of Somalia, Bosnia, Rwanda, and Darfur were on the ambassador’s mind. After all that, she had resolved that in any similar situation she would speak her mind so that no matter what happened she could sleep well afterward. “I would come down on the side of dramatic action,” Rice once said, “going down in flames if that was required.”
As far as Rice sussed it out, the president’s national security team was split into a do- nothing camp and a do- something camp. She believed that the options presented to the president had been designed to prevent rapid action. But Obama had impressed her by shoving that all aside and moving to the fundamental matter: Would the United States use its mighty but overstretched military to prevent a bloody nightmare?
Rice proposed seeking a UN Security Council resolution that would go beyond endorsing a no- fly zone and authorize the United States and other countries to mount direct military assaults against Qaddafi’s war machine. Winning approval of the measure would be tough—the Russians and Chinese might block it—but she was eager to try.
Obama then polled the backbenchers—the aides who didn’t sit at the table. Not surprisingly, Samantha Power backed military action. In 2005, when Obama was a freshman in the Senate, he had asked Power, then a Harvard professor, to meet with him. He had read A Problem from Hell, her Pulitzer Prize–winning history of the US government’s generally tepid responses to genocides in the twentieth century. During a conversation that lasted hours, the two bonded, and Power soon joined Obama’s Senate staff.
In the White House, Power was a leader among aides who favored muscular but multilateral idealism. In early December 2009, when Obama was about to fly to Oslo to accept the Nobel Peace Prize, he summoned Power at the last minute to journey with him on Air Force One so she could work on his unfinished acceptance speech.
Her mark on that address was clear, at least in one passage: “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 had been theory—this was the real thing. Power was nervous about what might happen if military action led to the fall of Qaddafi’s regime. There was a risk that fundamentalists or al- Qaeda would be empowered. Yet the United States and its allies could not let thousands of people die, if such a tragedy could be prevented.
Obama also asked Tony Blinken, Biden’s national security adviser, for his opinion. Blinken disagreed with his boss—for whom he’d worked nearly a decade—and said he favored military action. It was a brave move. Ben Rhodes also sided with the advocates for intervention.
The president wasn’t surveying these aides because he was having trouble making up his mind. He was leaning toward intervention, and he was looking for more voices that reflected his own view.
Later on, published accounts would contend that Obama had been nudged toward intervention by the women on his national security team: Clinton, Rice, and Power. But there was more of a generational divide than a gender split among his advisers. Rice, Power, Blinken, and Rhodes were a younger breed of foreign policy wonks, each now driven more by policy beliefs than the institutional concerns that Gates and Mullen had to consider.
Obama told his aides he had not come to the White House to be a leader who turned the other way. He noted that the United States was not in a position to intervene whenever a massacre loomed somewhere in the world. But in this instance it could—and with backing from the region.
Obama departed the meeting with an order: “I want to see all the options.”
He meant military options.