Another interesting point is that Obama, determined to avoid what everyone has criticized about the Bush/Cheney/Rumsfeld Iraq operation, set up a working group to debate options and outcomes in Libya as soon as the revolution began. Contributions to this discussion were sought widely, including from administration opponents like Elliott Abrams. The upshot seems to have been that the downside to intervention was not really all that scary: many people had vague fears about intervening in yet another Muslim country, but there were no realistic scenarios that posed a big threat to the US. Among the opponents was Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and most of the Pentagon brass, but in the final meeting Obama overruled their opposition:
According to one participant's summary, Obama said: Look, the question of who rules Libya is probably not a vital interest to the United States. The atrocities threatened don't compare to atrocities in other parts of the world, I hear that. But there's a big "but" here. First of all, acting would be the right thing to do, because we have an opportunity to prevent a massacre, and we've been asked to do it by the people of Libya, their Arab neighbors and the United Nations. And second, the president said, failing to intervene would be a "psychological pendulum, in terms of the Arab Spring, in favor of repression." He concluded: "Just signing on to a no-fly zone so that we have political cover isn't going to cut it. That's not how America leads." Nor, he added, is it the "image of America I believe in."As I read this, the decisive factor seems to have been a desire to somehow support the Arab Spring. The movement for freedom in the Arab world has stalled in Egypt, and we could not figure out how to support it in Bahrain because we are essentially on the side of the Arab sheiks in their ongoing power struggle with Iran. In Libya we could support freedom at little cost ($1 billion so far, and no American lives lost), with the support of our key allies, and without much risk of a terrible outcome. So Obama decided to do it. As Bill Clinton put it when defending his intervention in Kosovo, "We can't do everything, but we should do what we can."