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Yes, Libya needs to be part of the debate in the next presidential election. No, Benghazi isn’t the issue

Events in Libya do deserve an airing. But the questions that should be debated are when should the United States intervene in another country? And how?

Sen. Rand Paul’s applause lines at a candidate forum in New Hampshire on Saturday included his argument that Clinton’s actions in protecting Ambassador Stevens and other Americans in Benghazi amounted to dereliction of duty that disqualifies her from the presidency.
REUTERS/Brian Snyder

It’s coming.

With Hillary Clinton officially in the race for the White House, we’ll be hearing even more from Republicans about Benghazi, the Libyan city where U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens was killed in 2012 on Clinton’s watch as secretary of state.

Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul’s applause lines at a candidate forum in New Hampshire on Saturday included his argument that Clinton’s actions in protecting Stevens and other Americans amounted to dereliction of duty that disqualifies her from the presidency.

Events in Libya do deserve a full airing. But Benghazi, already the subject of endless investigation, is not the issue. Rather, the questions that should be debated by those who would be president are: When should the United States intervene in another country? And if it does, how? We have plenty of recent examples, most of them bad. Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria. Two decades ago, it was Rwanda and Bosnia. 

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Then there’s Libya.

While the Republican presidential hopefuls were gathered in New Hampshire, a boat carrying perhaps 700 refugees set off from the Libyan coast, bound for the southern islands of European Union member Italy. It capsized in the Mediterranean Sea, and it appears that most of them died. A week earlier, another boat carrying about 400 people went down in the Mediterranean, and most of them died, too. Already this year, about 1,500 are estimated to have died trying to make the crossing.

Also on Sunday, the Islamic State terror group released a new video Sunday showing what it said was the shooting or beheading of Ethiopian Christians in Libya. This follows a similar video released in February showing the beheading of Egyptian Christians.

Libya has virtually no capacity to stop such brutal executions, or the flood of refugees using it as a transit point to reach Europe. It’s not that Libya doesn’t have a government. It has two — but neither actually functions. Together with a bewildering array of militias, they spend most of their energy fighting each other. If Libya isn’t already a failed state, it’s awfully close.

This almost makes Muammar Gaddafi look good by comparison.

When Gaddafi started cracking down on protesters during the most dramatic days of  the Arab Spring four years ago, he quickly became a target. President Obama authorized airstrikes on an armored column to prevent Gaddafi’s military from retaking rebellious Benghazi and launching a massacre. The U.S. handed control over the air campaign to NATO, and the bombing continued until fall, when rebels captured Gaddafi and killed him. No foreign ground troops were used. 

At the time, it seemed like a promising way to get rid of tyrants — a careful “intervention lite” in which the U.S. and its allies could prevent the most egregious abuses without losing soldiers or billions of dollars in cash.

In the words of former Middle East peace negotiator Aaron David Miller quoted here, Obama’s approach amounted to the following: “If we can, if there’s a moral case, if we have allies, and if we can transition out and not get stuck, we’ll move to help. The Obama doctrine is the ‘hedge your bets and make sure you have a way out’ doctrine. He learned from Afghanistan and Iraq.” 

But the intervention in Libya is now widely regarded as a failure. Even Obama regards the way he went about it as a mistake. 

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Libyans were mostly left on their own to rebuild a political system that had revolved around Gaddafi for more than 40 years. While the U.S. was reacting to events in Libya rather than instigating them, Washington more or less expected Libyans to do what neo-cons expected of Iraqis after the fall of Saddam Hussein — pick up the pieces, sell a lot of oil, and build a democratic society.

That didn’t work in Iraq, and it didn’t work in Libya.

Obama told New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman last year that he still thinks it was right to intervene in Libya. But if he had it to do over again, he would opt for a more robust intervention that also would have helped put Libya back together.

That’s what the U.S. ultimately did in Iraq and Afghanistan, with results that are all too familiar. On the other hand, the lessons probably inform Obama’s decision not to intervene in Syria. 

In a speech last month, the former head of Britain’s MI6 intelligence agency traced Libya’s current problems to the decision not to get further involved early on. “Libya had no institutions,” said Sir John Sawers. “Who or what would take over? The answer? Those with the weapons. Result? Growing chaos, exploited by fanatics.“

Then, there is this analysis, that the mistake was intervening in Libya at all because the civilian deaths had been limited, the violence was coming to an end, and Gaddafi already was on his way out.

In focusing on Benghazi, Rand Paul was probably throwing red meat to the party faithful. But the libertarian-leaning Kentucky senator at least acknowledged a bigger question. If only to draw a contrast with some of his Republican rivals, he charged that they shared Clinton’s eagerness for foreign interventions.

When and how, in a world full of trouble, does an uneasy superpower intervene? Amidst the noise of a political campaign, that is a real question worthy of serious debate.