As Muammar Gaddafi's troops closed in on the rebel stronghold of Benghazi on March 15, President Barack Obama put the fate of the city's 1 million residents in the hands of U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice. At a meeting of the National Security Council (NSC) that afternoon, Defense Secretary Robert Gates, leery of another war in the Middle East, told Obama a U.N.-proposed no-fly zone would not stop Gaddafi from taking the town. Rice, participating via video teleconference from New York City, said she could get a tougher resolution allowing broader intervention including the ability to attack armor and ground troops that would do the trick.
Obama gave Rice the go-ahead and in doing so, put her on the spot. Rice, 46, was a staffer at the NSC in 1994 when the world failed to stop the genocide in Rwanda. A participant in deliberations on the crisis, she later said the White House failed to see the larger moral imperative to act and told Harvard scholar Samantha Power, now an Obama NSC aide, "I swore to myself that if I ever faced such a crisis again, I would come down on the side of dramatic action, going down in flames if that was required."
The question of humanitarian intervention going to war not for imminent national-security needs but to save innocent lives is one that continues to vex the governments of the U.S. and other democracies. Rice had come to believe that the 2003 war in Iraq had set back the cause of humanitarian intervention by discrediting U.S. military missions abroad and making it harder to rally consensus to stop a massacre. But against the backdrop of the Arab Spring and given both Arab leaders' hostility toward Gaddafi and the determination by France and Britain that intervention in Libya was in their interests Gaddafi's violence, and his threat of more to come, placed the question of when to intervene to save lives squarely on the table.
Rice, a Rhodes scholar and experienced diplomat, is not the only one in the Administration with deep-seated ideas on this issue. Power, a former journalist and academic, wrote the definitive history of America's often timid response to genocide in the 20th century. Obama said in his Nobel Prize speech that "force can be justified on humanitarian grounds ... [because] inaction tears at our conscience and can lead to more-costly intervention later."
Rice and her allies on the U.N. Security Council duly delivered a resolution a strong one, authorizing "all necessary measures" to defend Libyan civilians and the first air sorties, by the French air force, flew on March 19. On March 21, Obama said, "The core principle that has to be upheld" is when "there is a potential humanitarian crisis about to take place ... we can't simply stand by with empty words; that we have to take some sort of action." Thanks to the advocacy of Rice and others, Obama saved the people of Benghazi from an uncertain fate at Gaddafi's hands and re-established the doctrine of humanitarian intervention. But whether armed intervention can provide a quick peace in a troubled land remains a proposition in search of a proof.