The West Battles Gadhafi

Brazil’s UN ambassador Maria Luiza Riberio Viotti voiced concern that military action in Libya would “exacerbate tensions on the ground and cause more harm than good to the same civilians we are committed to protect.”

 

She also warned that military action would undermine the “spontaneous home-grown nature” of popular uprisings spreading through the Arab world, and threatened to “change that narrative in ways that would have serious repercussions” for Libya and the rest of the region.

 

News of the Security Council vote prompted wild celebrations to erupt across Benghazi, which had already come under heavy attack from Gaddafi’s forces. The streets of Benghazi were filled with celebratory gunfire and people waving the pre-Gaddafi Libyan flag which has been adopted by the rebels.

 

Libya’s renegade UN-based diplomat, Ibrahim Dabbashi, praised the council’s action and urged outside powers to move “immediately” to halt Gaddafi’s military offensive. The vote, Dabbashi said, sent a clear message to the Libyan people that they “are not alone. We are glad that Benghazi will now be safe.”

 

The day after the resolution was adopted, President Obama explained the humanitarian justification for US military intervention. In his address to the American people, Obama seemed most concerned about carefully defining the limits of the US involvement in Libya. “I also want to be clear about what we will not be doing. The United States is not going to deploy ground troops into Libya. And we are not going to use force to go beyond a well-defined goal — specifically, the protection of civilians in Libya,” he said.

 

LIBYAN AIR DEFENSES WERE THE FIRST TARGET

 

The plane and cruise missile attacks were carried out by US, British and French forces beginning the next day. Initial strikes targeted Libya’s air defense systems and major airbases, in order to protect allied planes enforcing the no-fly zone authorized by the Security Council resolution.

 

US military officials said that prior to the start of the allied attacks, Libya had more than 30 surface-to-air missile installations, largely positioned along its Mediterranean coast. Gaddafi’s arsenal also includes an unknown number of long-range missiles that can reach up to 180 miles off the coast. Libya also operates more than 15 early-warning radar sites along the coast, a Defense Department spokesman said.

 

After Libya’s air defenses were crippled, US bombers and fighter jets expanded their target list to include attacks on Gaddafi’s armored columns advancing on Benghazi. The allied air attacks came just in time to prevent Gaddafi’s forces from crushing the rebel insurrection.

 

The air strikes were covered by the Security Council resolution, which authorized the use of “all necessary measures” to protect civilians in Libya.

 

The resolution imposes a specific “ban on all flights in the airspace of the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya” and use of “all necessary measures” to protect civilians. The resolution authorizes interdiction and inspection “on the high seas” of all vessels and aircraft bound to or from Libya provided there are “reasonable grounds to believe that the cargo contains items” prohibited under a previously adopted arms embargo and other sanctions.

 

It also calls on all U.N. members to stop the flow of “armed mercenary personnel” to Libya.

 

OBAMA WANTED OTHER NATIONS TO GO FIRST

 

Since the onset of the Libyan crisis, Obama has preferred to let other nations publicly lead the international response.

 

In contrast with Gaddafi’s earlier threats to “show no mercy” to the rebels, Libya’s deputy foreign minister Khaled Kaim told reporters that Libya welcomed the clauses in the Security Council resolution calling for protection of civilians. But he cautioned the international community against arming the opposition, saying it would be tantamount to “inviting Libyans to kill each other.” The intention of the Libyan armed forces, he said, was “to protect civilians and guarantee food and medical supplies.”

 

In fact, Gaddafi’s first reaction to the Security Council resolution was to step up his attacks on the rebel forces, and to press his drive to capture the rebel capital of Benghazi.

 

Shortly before the vote, Gaddafi had warned the rebels in Benghazi that “we are coming tonight and there will be no mercy.” In an audio address delivered on state television, he promised to hunt down opposition “traitors . . . in the alleyways, house to house, room to room. . . . The whole world will watch Benghazi and see what will happen in it.”

 

Libya’s defense ministry also threatened swift retaliation against any outside attack. “Any foreign military act against Libya will expose all air and maritime traffic in the Mediterranean to danger, and civilian and military facilities will become targets,” a ministry statement said.

 

In anticipation of some kind of military action against Gaddafi, the US, Great Britain and France had positioned some of their warships off the Libyan coast, while moving other military assets to the region.

 

The Security Council vote came a few days after the Arab League agreed to support a no-fly zone over Libya. The Security Council resolution “requests” Arab League members to cooperate with other UN members in implementing its terms. Qatar was the first Arab government to offer its planes to help enforce the no-fly zone.

 

DIVIDED OPINIONS IN CONGRESS

 

At a Senate hearing hours before the Security Council vote, Undersecretary of State William Burns confronted sharply differing views about the Libyan crisis that crossed party lines. Some, led by Senator John Kerry, D-Mass., charged that Obama has been too cautious in his response to Gaddafi.

 

“Time is running out for the Libyan people,” Kerry said.

 

But Senator Richard Lugar, R-Ind., along with several committee Democrats, urged Obama to “seek congressional debate on a declaration of war” against Libya before US forces participated in any military action.

 

A number of congressional Democrats later complained that Obama had failed to consult with them before committing the US to military action in Libya.

 

OBAMA SHIFTS POSITION

 

But after two weeks of trying to delay proposed military intervention in Libya, the Obama administration last week was shifting toward taking action, prompted by public calls for action from the leaders of Great Britain and France, as well as the military situation on the ground in Libya, which was changing swiftly.

 

Libya’s rebel forces dissolved far more quickly than White House officials had anticipated, despite warnings of their weakness from the US director of national intelligence.

 

The turning point for the White House came Tuesday evening, March 15, 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, Obama directed Ambassador Rice to seek Security Council approval for a resolution that would authorize military intervention beyond a no-fly zone, because US military leaders recognized that more would be needed to prevent an outright victory by Gadhafi’s forces over the crumbling rebel resistance.

 

“What Obama 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.

 

DIVISIONS INSIDE THE ADMINISTRATION

 

The belated White House decision to support military operations was a victory for a group of interventionists within the administration, including Rice, Rhodes and National Security Council senior directors Samantha Power and Gayle Smith.

 

They feared a recurrence in Libya of the genocidal slaughters in Rwanda and the Balkans in the 1990s due to the inaction of the US and its European allies. Rice, Power and Smith argued that the US had a moral duty to prevent mass killings as Gadhafi retook rebel-held areas and threatened reprisals against those who did not surrender.

 

Those who opposed a US military commitment in Libya were Defense Secretary Robert Gates, National Security Adviser Thomas Donilon and his deputy, Denis McDonough. They feared that another military commitment would further strain over-stretched US forces. They pointed out that a no-fly option would not, by itself, be enough to push back Gaddafi, and that a deeper US involvement in the fighting in Libya would only further damage US popularity in the region.

 

CLINTONCHANGED HER MIND

 

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who initially was wary of military intervention in Libya, shifted her view after traveling in Europe and North Africa and seeing firsthand the international support for and willingness to participate in such a mission.

 

Describing the evolving debate within the Obama White House, a former administration official said, “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.”

 

The debate began with a March 9 meeting of the most senior members of Obama’s national security team. At the time, there was little support among senior administration officials for establishing a no-fly zone, which they viewed as little more than a symbolic step in a Libyan conflict fought largely on the ground.

 

MIXED SIGNALS

 

Earlier in the month, Obama had declared that Gaddafi “must leave,” but Obama’s critics and supporters alike wondered what, if anything, the president intended to do beyond imposing financial sanctions to make that happen.

 

In testimony March 10 before the Senate Armed Services Committee, the director of national intelligence, James Clapper, warned that “over the long term . . . the regime would prevail.” This gave the impression of disarray on Libyan policy among the White House officials.

 

Later, administration spokesmen attempted to characterize Clapper’s remarks as a narrow military assessment which ignored the growing diplomatic and economic pressures on Gaddafi. Administration officials feared that other nations would view Clapper’s comments as US policy – and that the Obama administration had, in effect, accepted the likelihood of Gaddafi’s survival in power.

 

Two days later, though, the Arab League called on the United Nations to enforce a no-fly zone over Libya in an unprecedented rebuke of a member Arab country.

 

At the start of last week, the prospect of passage of a UN Security Council resolution authorizing military intervention seemed remote, since Russia and China, each of which has its own history of putting down internal dissent with violence, feared setting a precedent. But when Clinton arrived in Paris last week to meet with foreign ministers from the Group of 8 nations and Russia, she found support for the resolution, building, in part because of the call for intervention from the Arab League.

 

FIRST MEETING WITH THE REBELS

 

While in Paris, Clinton also met for the first time with a senior representative of the Libyan opposition’s interim government, Mahmoud Jibril.

 

At the meeting, Jibril “expressed a sense of urgency about the situation in both humanitarian and political terms,” said a senior administration official. He also reassured Clinton that the goals of the rebels and their plan for ending Gaddafi’s rule were consistent with US interests in the region.

 

Meanwhile, as Britain and France worked on developing the Security Council resolution, the US, according to one Security Council diplomat, appeared “semi-detached.”

 

US Ambassador Rice still appeared tentative about the resolution in a closed Security Council session, questioning other council members about whether there would be Arab participation and suggesting a no-fly zone would not change the military balance on the ground.

 

“We had the feeling that they had no idea what their policy was going to be,” a second Security Council diplomat said.

 

The day before the Security Council vote took place, Rice signaled that the United States was finally prepared to take action because at least two Arab governments appeared ready to participate in enforcing a no-fly zone. The Arab support also made it harder for Russia and China to justify vetoing the resolution.

 

As President Obama told the country Friday, “I have taken this decision [to order military action] with the confidence that action is necessary, and that we will not be acting alone.”

 

The Washington Post contributed to this story