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03.20.11

Libya Airstrikes: The Women Who Called for War

That a diplomatic team led by Hillary Clinton, Susan Rice, and Samantha Power advocated military action against Gaddafi may be a footnote in the Libyan conflict—but it is a significant mark of our nation's evolution, argues John Avlon.

The Libyan airstrikes mark the first time in U.S. history that a female-dominated diplomatic team has urged military action.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton joined with U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice and the influential Office of Multilateral and Human Rights Director Samantha Power to argue for airstrikes against Libya. Their advice triggered an abrupt shift in U.S. policy, overturning more cautious administrations' counselors.

The circumstances under which the U.S. decided to attack the Gaddafi regime reveal an internal evolution of strategy. Until last week it was assumed the North African uprising against dictatorships would overwhelm the Libyan dictator. But in the absence of an established no-fly zone, he successfully turned the tide against rebels in the eastern half of his nation by strafing his citizens.

In a strange reversal of international stereotypes, French President Nicolas Sarkozy took the lead in arguing for military intervention and organizing an international coalition. (In 1986, French President François Mitterrand had resisted allowing U.S. planes to use French airspace when President Reagan bombed Tripoli and Muammar Gaddafi's palace in retaliation for sponsoring terrorist attacks.) Sarkozy's arguments took on more urgency as it became clear that the Obama administration's inaction was itself a decision that could prove politically pungent at home and disastrous for the people of Libya.

As the world watched the citizens of Benghazi being bombed and shot from the air, the civilian-led national-security team became determined to stop the slaughter.

“Few Americans realize it, but our leaders who lack military experience tend to be more hawkish than leaders who have served in the military,” said Matt Pottinger.

Passages from Samantha Power's 2003 Pulitzer Prize-winning book A Problem From Hell offer insight into principles that may have driven internal Obama administration debates. Power compellingly criticizes the dynamics in previous administrations that allowed genocides and mass slaughters to proceed:

"A hopeful but passive and ultimately deadly American waiting game commenced… The U.S. government not only abstains from sending troops, but it takes very few steps along a continuum of intervention to deter genocide… [U.S. officials] render the bloodshed two-sided and inevitable, not genocidal. They insist that any proposed U.S. response will be futile. Indeed, it may do more harm than good, bringing perverse consequences to the victims or jeopardizing other precious American moral or strategic interests. They brand as 'emotional' those U.S. officials who urge intervention and make moral arguments in a system that speaks principally in the cold language of interests."

Whether the Clinton-, Rice-, and Power-led argument for intervention was branded "emotional" or not, their moral arguments apparently triumphed over "the cold language of interests."

Still, John Prendergast, co-founder of the Enough Project and a former director of African affairs for the National Security Council under President Clinton, noted that the decision to strike Libya ultimately lay with the president. "Secretary Clinton, Ambassador Rice, and Samantha Power were certainly active participants at different levels in [the] process, but ultimately it was the president who drove the debate," Prendergast said. "He demanded that the full range of options and their pros and cons be exhaustively discussed. The president made the key calls to Arab and European leaders to ensure success at the Arab League and U.N. Security Council. Most importantly, President Obama decided America wouldn't stand idly by in the face of what was sure to be a slaughter in Benghazi and other densely populated towns. That was the game-changer, and it was the president who drove that decision."

In the last airstrike-driven effort to cease a mass slaughter, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright was famously aggressive in her advocacy for military intervention in the Balkans during the Clinton administration, telling Colin Powell, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, "What's the point of having this superb military that you're always talking about if we can't use it?" Powell said later: "I thought I would have an aneurysm."

"Few Americans realize it, but our leaders who lack military experience tend to be more hawkish than leaders who have served in the military," said Matt Pottinger, a former Marine captain and the Edward R. Murrow Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. "In recent decades, we've had fewer veterans in the Executive and Legislative Branches than at any point since World War II. As a result, we've grown increasingly willing to use military force abroad, and for a broader range of reasons. For example, we're more willing today to intervene to prevent human-rights abuses. Leaders who are military veterans have been, on the whole, more reluctant to intervene in places like Somalia, Bosnia, Kosovo, Haiti, Iraq, and now Libya."

In accepting the advice to intervene in Libya, Obama apparently put conditions on the limited military engagement—requiring that any action take place in "days, not weeks," with no U.S. troops on the ground. The multilateral coalition backing the airstrikes is intended to be a check on any mission creep. But the Pentagon is now engaged in the management of three wars, providing more pressure for Defense Secretary Robert Gates and his top deputy and potential successor, Michele Flournoy, the undersecretary of defense for policy.

In the end, that a female-led diplomatic team argued for war will be a footnote in this conflict as it unfolds. But it is historically significant. And that it seems almost unremarkable to contemporaries is a small mark of our constant evolution toward a more perfect union, even within our civilian-led military.

John Avlon's new book Wingnuts: How the Lunatic Fringe Is Hijacking America is available now by Beast Books both on the Web and in paperback. He is also the author of Independent Nation: How Centrists Can Change American Politics and a CNN contributor. Previously, he served as chief speechwriter for New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani and was a columnist and associate editor for The New York Sun.