TRIPOLI, Libya -- At 5:45 p.m. on March 19, three hours before the official start of the air campaign over Libya, four French Rafale jet fighters streaked across the Mediterranean coastline to attack a column of tanks heading toward the rebel city of Benghazi. The jets quickly obliterated their targets -- and in doing so nearly upended the international alliance coming to Benghazi's rescue.
France's head start on the air war infuriated Italy's prime minister, who accused Paris of upstaging NATO. Silvio Berlusconi warned darkly of cutting access to Italian air bases vital to the alliance's warplanes.
"It nearly broke up the coalition," said a European diplomat who had a front-row seat to the events and who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive matters between allies. Yet the rift was quickly patched, thanks to a frenzied but largely unseen lobbying effort that kept the coalition from unraveling in its opening hours.
"That," the diplomat said, "was Hillary."
(At left, watch)
Some Republicans derided the effort as "leading from behind," while many others questioned why President Obama was entangling the nation in another overseas military campaign that had little strategic urgency and scant public support. But with NATO operations likely to end this week, U.S. officials and key allies are offering a detailed new defense of the approach and Clinton's pivotal role -- both within a divided Cabinet and a fragile, assembled-on-the-fly international alliance.
What emerges from these accounts is a picture of Clinton using her mixture of political pragmatism and tenacity to referee spats among NATO partners, secure crucial backing from Arab countries and tutor rebels on the fine points of message management.
Clinton, in an interview, acknowledged "periods of anguish and buyer's remorse" during the seven months of the campaign. But, she said, "we set into motion a policy that was on the right side of history, on the right side of our values, on the right side of our strategic interests in the region."
From skeptic to advocate
During the initial weeks of unrest in Libya, Clinton was among the White House officials clinging to fading hopes that Gaddafi might fall without any help from the West.
From the first armed resistance on Feb. 18 until March 9, the disorganized opposition movement appeared to be on a roll, taking control of Libyan cities from Benghazi to Brega and Misurata on the Mediterranean coast. But in a single, bloody week, Gaddafi loyalists turned rebel gains into a rout, crushing resistance in towns across Libya before marshaling forces for a final drive against Benghazi, the last opposition stronghold.
With Gaddafi threatening to slaughter Benghazi's population "like rats," the rebel leaders pleaded for Western intervention, including a no-fly zone. The appeal garnered support in Europe, particularly among French and British officials who began working on the text of a U.N. Security Council resolution that would authorize the use of military force against the Libyan autocrat.
But the idea of a no-fly zone drew skepticism from within the Obama White House. Some officials, most notably then-Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, opposed military intervention. And Clinton, during two trips to Europe in early March, made clear that Washington was not eager to lead a politically risky military campaign against yet another Muslim country.
She was loath to see Gaddafi trouncing aspiring democrats in his country and menacing fledgling governments in neighboring Egypt and Tunisia. But Clinton told aides, who later described the administration's inner workings on the condition of anonymity, that the hard reality was that a no-fly zone, by itself, might make things worse.
"We were opposed to doing something symbolic -- that was the worst of both worlds," said one of the aides. "We would have crossed the threshold [of intervention] without accomplishing anything."
Clinton had drawn up a list of conditions that included a formal request by Arab states for intervention. On March 12, the 22-nation Arab League did exactly that, voting to ask for U.N. approval of a military no-fly zone over Libya.
The next day, March 13, Clinton traveled to Paris for a meeting with foreign ministers from the Group of Eight countries. In the marbled conference rooms of Paris's Westin Hotel, she sat down for the first time with Mahmoud Jibril, the interim leader of Libya's fledgling Transitional National Council. She also met privately with Persian Gulf diplomats to gauge Arab willingness to send warplanes to enforce a possible no-fly zone. And she huddled with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, whose country's veto potentially could block any intervention effort at the United Nations.
"When she went to Paris, there were no instructions from the White House on whether to support strong action in Libya," said a senior State Department official, who explained that no consensus had been reached within the national security cabinet at the time. Yet, within three days, the official said, Clinton began to see a way forward.