Throughout the second week of March 2011, the vastly outgunned rebel forces in Libya fell back before an onslaught by troops loyal to Muammar al-Qaddafi. In the United Nations Security Council, Britain and France lobbied desperately for a resolution authorizing the establishment of a no-fly zone. But U.S. President Barack Obama, intent on withdrawing from the two Middle Eastern wars he had inherited, seemed loath to act, and his U.N. ambassador, the blunt and outspoken Susan Rice, stayed uncharacteristically quiet on the sidelines, sending her deputy to key council meetings and questioning whether a no-fly zone would ever work. "She was blocking, blocking, blocking, standing on the brakes on Libya," one Security Council diplomat recalls.
As an official at the National Security Council under President Bill Clinton, Rice had lived through the horrendous American failure to stop the genocide in Rwanda, and later, as a fellow at the Brookings Institution, she had called for military intervention to stop atrocities in Darfur. But senior Obama administration officials, including Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Thomas Donilon, the national security advisor, were insisting that Libya was not strategically vital and advised the president to steer clear of another war. Despite their opposition and her own public stance, Rice agitated with the White House in favor of intervention in Libya, several aides told me. She also privately instructed her staff in New York to ready a resolution authorizing tough new sanctions and the use of force. She told neither fellow diplomats nor officials in Washington about the draft.
On Saturday, March 12, the Arab League called for military action, as Rice had been warning her colleagues it would. But it was obvious that a no-fly zone, by itself, would not stop Qaddafi's troops. When Obama gathered his principals for a decisive meeting that Tuesday night, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, having spoken to Arab allies, was able to promise that some Arab countries would join a more robust campaign to bomb Libyan targets. Rice, on a secure video link in New York, said she thought she could move such a resolution through the council. The way Ben Rhodes, a deputy national security advisor, recalls it, Rice said that "she was going to call people's bluff" by proposing much more powerful military action than even France and Britain had sought. Just before the meeting, Rice had called key ambassadors to say the United States would not endorse a no-fly zone. But three hours later she called again to say the United States would push for a bombing campaign. Some of America's allies were so bewildered by the abrupt turnaround that they were half-convinced Washington was issuing impossible demands in order to cover its unwillingness to act.
The next morning, Rice took her resolution out of the drawer and introduced it at the Security Council. "I confess," she told me recently, "that I made something of a dramatic presentation." Rice normally shuns theatricality. Now, however, she told the council that Libya presented "as imminent and urgent a situation as this council has ever faced." Rice was brutally explicit. "I don't want to hear six months from now that we did a bait-and-switch on you people," she said. "It's airstrikes; it's aggressive use of air power." The presentation, a council diplomat recalled, produced stunned silence; it was itself a sort of aerial assault. And it worked. The next day, March 17, the Security Council voted 10-0, with five abstentions, to take "all necessary measures" to protect Libyan civilians.
The Libya resolution was a major achievement for Rice and a vindication of the Obama administration's commitment to multilateral institutions, above all the United Nations. Obama had concluded that stopping the violence was not a matter of core national security interests and had instructed Rice to tell the Security Council that the United States would not act at all absent council authorization. "It's up to you to decide," Rice told her colleagues. This reticence would later be stigmatized as "leading from behind," but perhaps it's better understood as leading without wishing to be seen as taking the lead -- a new model of multilateralism suitable to a post-hegemonic era. And because the intervention ultimately succeeded, it offered hope that the U.N. might finally become the authorizing agency for the "responsibility to protect," the doctrine stipulating that states have a duty to prevent or halt mass atrocities even outside their borders.
The multilateralist euphoria lasted all of a few weeks. By Oct. 4, Russia and China blocked even a mild resolution criticizing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who was brutalizing his own citizens as grossly as Qaddafi had. That was about 17,000 fatalities ago. The council's paralysis on Syria soon made Obama's strategic deference look like timidity, especially as months of ineffective Security Council diplomacy dragged on; this time, there would be no Susan Rice maneuver to break the logjam. Richard Williamson, one of Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney's chief foreign-policy advisors, has accused the president of "subcontracting" U.S. policy to former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, whose U.N.-backed peace plan dissolved amid a whirlwind of violence. The feeble half-measures on Syria offer a reminder of the inherent limitations of the Security Council, where the great powers have a veto and are prepared to wield it. They also demonstrate one of the organization's unspoken purposes: If you don't want to act or you don't know how to act, you can always blame it on the Security Council. Libya, as Rice herself would put it, was a "data point," not a "trend."
DURING THE 2008 presidential campaign, Obama sometimes said, "I want to stand in front of the U.N. and say, 'America is back!'" He meant not only that under a President Obama the United States would take the United Nations seriously again, but that the United Nations would be the right place from which to proclaim a new policy of "engagement" with institutions, with adversaries, and even with allies after eight years of what Obama saw as George W. Bush's unilateral high-handedness, not least his failure to secure Security Council approval for the Iraq war. Obama argued that transnational problems -- climate change, nuclear proliferation, epidemic disease -- could only be solved in multilateral bodies. He also thought that healing the breach at the U.N. and elsewhere had become a national security imperative. "The image of the U.S. was always our most important export," he told me in the summer of 2007, "and underwrote a lot of our security." Obama made, in effect, a hard-nosed case for what might otherwise be seen as a dangerously soft-nosed policy.