At first, even Clinton seemed wary of U.S. involvement in any military action to unseat Gaddafi. “When I met with French President Nicolas Sarkozy, he urged the United States to support international military intervention to stop Qaddafi’s advance toward the rebel stronghold of Benghazi in eastern Libya,” she recalled. “I was sympathetic but not convinced.” Clinton noted, “The United States had spent the previous decade bogged down in long and difficult wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.”
In testimony before Congress, Clinton not only stressed the need for “international authorization” before Washington embarked on such a venture, she cited a key reason for her wariness: “Too often, other countries were quick to demand action but then looked to America to shoulder all the burdens and take all the risks.” Her comment was an unsubtle swipe at NATO’s European members.
Members of the Arab League, who had long loathed the volatile Gaddafi, were also pressing for international intervention. The League included such close U.S. security partners as Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates. But Clinton noted that at a meeting of the G-8 economic powers, “the Europeans were even more gung ho. I got an earful about military intervention from Sarkozy.”
Similar pro‐intervention lobbying from Britain impressed her even more. “When I saw British Foreign Secretary William Hague at dinner that night, he pressed the case for action.” And if Hague thought war in Libya was necessary, “that counted for a lot.” In Clinton’s opinion, Hague was a prudent pragmatist, not an impulsive crusader or inclined to engage in international grandstanding.
Gates also emphasized the impact our allies had. Arab League lobbying “and strong British and French pressure for NATO to act, I think, together persuaded the president that the United States would need to take the lead” in organizing “a military campaign to stop Qaddafi.”
Following the March G-8 summit, Clinton reported to President Barack Obama that “our NATO allies are prepared to take the lead in any military action.” That approach corresponded perfectly to the White House’s preferences. Clinton stressed that Obama “wanted to keep U.S. involvement limited, so our allies would have to shoulder much of the burden and fly most of the sorties” that would be necessary to enforce a no‐fly zone and eliminate Gaddafi’s air defenses.
Still, there was a wide range of views among NATO’s European members about how to proceed. France was so eager for war that Sarkozy ordered planes into action hours before the agreed upon time to launch the first airstrikes against Gaddafi’s forces. Turkey, on the other hand, agreed to the military option only with great reluctance, and as Gates confirmed, NATO’s most important European member, Germany, was scarcely more enthusiastic. “Because we had the most capabilities,” Clinton noted, “the United States started out in the lead coordinating role. The next logical step was to have NATO organize the intervention.”
The initial military phase was overwhelmingly a U.S. operation. Navy warships in the Mediterranean launched more than 100 cruise missiles at targets in Libya. And for all the official emphasis on implementing a no‐fly zone, many of those missiles were directed at Libyan ground forces advancing on rebel positions. That became known as enforcing a “no‐drive zone.”
NATO’s regime change motive, though little acknowledged, was also a major factor. Indeed, Sarkozy was willing to acquiesce to Washington’s demand that NATO take over enforcing the no‐fly zone only if France, Britain, and other willing members were allowed to aggressively pursue no‐drive zone operations on their own. After additional intense U.S. diplomatic efforts on that and other issues, NATO assumed formal command of the Libya military intervention, known now as Operation Unified Protector.
Even though NATO was officially in charge, the operation remained predominantly a U.S. mission. The regime change ambitions of France, Britain, and the other European members clearly exceeded their capabilities. Gates stressed the imbalance: