Averting ‘Srebrenica on steroids’: White House defends Libya operations

The Obama White House is stepping up its outreach to policy hands on Capitol Hill, as well as to outside foreign policy experts and progressive allies, in a campaign to defend the president's decision to launch military operations in Libya.

"This is a limited humanitarian intervention, not war," White House Middle East strategist Dennis Ross, National Security Council strategic planning official Derek Chollet, and two military officials told a group of outside foreign policy experts invited to a briefing at the White House Roosevelt Room Tuesday.

"We were looking at 'Srebrenica on steroids' —the real or imminent possibility that up to a 100,000 people could be massacred, and everyone would blame us for it," Ross explained, according to one attendee, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the administration is trying to keep its consultations private (though the meeting was referenced in a tweet.)

The White House national security officials also stressed that U.S.-led military operations in Libya would be transitioning soon to an international coalition, in which the United States would not be taking the lead.

"The president has made brutally clear to all of us that we are transitioning," Ross noted, according to the attendee.

Among those who attended the Tuesday White House briefing were Center for American Progress Middle East expert Brian Katulis, Center for Strategic and International Studies' Jon Alterman, George Washington University Middle East expert Marc Lynch, the Center for New American Security's Andrew Exum, and the New American Foundation's Steve Clemons.

Deputy National Security Adviser Denis McDonough had a similar message when he addressed progressive allies at a closed-door, off-the-record gathering Tuesday night.

"This humanitarian intervention had to happen," a person who attended the event summarized McDonough's message. The attendee also spoke on condition of anonymity because of the White House's request for confidentiality. McDonough also said, according to the attendee, that the president had consulted extensively with Congress about the Libya situation throughout the entire month.

Command of Libya operations "will be transferred over to leadership of other countries shortly," McDonough said, reiterating the message of the meeting led by Ross and Chollet on Tuesday.

The administration also sent several officials involved in Libya policy-making—U.S. Ambassador to Libya Gene Cretz (currently working out of the State Department), the National Intelligence Officer for Near East and South Asia, the joint chiefs of staff intel/ops guy, Under Secretary of the Treasury David Cohen—to brief Hill staffers on Libya Tuesday in an unclassified format, Hill staffers said.

Not all of them found the briefing reassuring. "The strategy appears more like Somalia on Prozac," one Senate GOP staffer said after the briefing.

Nevertheless, coalition partners have evidently made progress toward resolving an intra-European dispute over who should command the next phase of military operations in Libya on Wednesday. Turkey announced Wednesday that it was sending five ships and a submarine to help enforce an arms embargo against Libya.

British Foreign Secretary William Hague also announced that the UK would be hosting an international conference on Libya in London next Tuesday.

Both developments seem to signal that French opposition to a NATO-led Libya command structure may be losing support among coalition members. That growing consensus appears to be in concert with the position of President Obama, who has reiterated his insistence to his advisers on a swift transition from U.S.-led operations to an international coalition led by others.

The White House did not respond to a query about how it had gotten the estimate that as many as 100,000 people could have been killed if Benghazi had fallen to Gadhafi's forces.

(President Barack Obama talks with British Prime Minister David Cameron about the current situation in Libya during a call from Air Force One on the flight from Santiago, Chile to San Salvador, El Salvador, March 22, 2011.: Pete Souza/White House)