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Four questions Hillary Clinton needs to answer about Libya (that have nothing to do with Benghazi)

Clinton’s judgement about Libya illustrates the uncertainties and conflicting pressures any U.S. leader faces in a time of crisis — and the consequences of getting it wrong.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton with Libyan soldiers upon her departure from Tripoli in Libya on October 18, 2011.
REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

Hillary Clinton’s Libya problem just won’t go away.

On Sunday and Monday, the New York Times published an exhaustive two-part series examining the U.S. role in bringing down Muammar Gaddafi five years ago, and Clinton’s role in it as secretary of state. 

While reading it requires a commitment of time, the number of sources The Times quotes, and the breadth of understanding it brings to the issue provide a welcome break from a presidential campaign that (on the Republican side, at least) appears hinged to reality by only a few loose screws. This is serious stuff that illustrates the uncertainties and conflicting pressures U.S. leaders face in time of crisis — and the consequences of getting it wrong.

It’s not about Benghazi. While the issue is less acute than the death of a U.S. ambassador, it’s actually more significant. It’s about judgment. Without U.S. intervention, Gaddafi might well have survived. If he had, Libya would certainly have been a mess, but probably would not have descended into complete chaos. In those circumstances, Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans almost certainly wouldn’t have died.

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Five years on, it’s easy to forget how furiously the British, French and many Middle Eastern countries had turned on Gaddafi during the Arab Spring. And how odd it would have seemed in the midst of such revolutionary fervor to let Gaddafi off the hook while demanding that Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak and Bashar Assad in Syria step down.

So the decision was far less unilateral and clear-cut than the Bush administration’s decision to invade Iraq in 2003. The Times quotes then-Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates as saying it was a 51-49 decision, in which Clinton’s support was decisive.

Clinton is right that it ultimately was Obama’s call. But she doesn’t get a pass, particularly since her staff made a point of crowing about her involvement – until things started going south.

So, based on what we know now about Libya, here are four questions about her attitudes and her judgment.

1. Do you really want to be the world’s policeman? 
Prime Minister David Cameron of Britain and French President Nicolas Sarkozy pressed hard for military intervention in Libya, and at first, the U.S. was reluctant. Gerard Araud, France’s U.N. ambassador at the time, quoted his U.S. counterpart Susan Rice as telling him the Obama administration wouldn’t be dragged into “your shitty war.” A few days later, at a meeting with Cameron and Clinton, Sarkozy forced Washington’s hand by declaring that his warplanes were already in the air — but that he’d recall them if they could agree on collective action. In between, Obama administration officials fretted about an impending massacre of rebels by Gaddafi’s forces in Benghazi (which in retrospect seems unlikely), the danger of getting dragged in to clean up after the British and French, and the lack of U.S. influence on future developments if it didn’t take part. What emerged was a “lead from behind” strategy in which the U.S. put its unique military and intelligence capabilities at the disposal of an anti-Gaddafi coalition. In practice, as the campaign dragged on, the U.S. took on more and more responsibility for carrying out a policy it initially opposed. So, if you don’t think it’s America’s role to try to run the world, how do avoid getting played by your allies while still retaining enough influence to protect your interests? 

2. Do you ever consider that your instinct to ‘do something’ can be a liability?
Clinton, like her husband, appears to have drawn a lesson from Washington’s — and the world’s — failure to stop the 1994 Rwanda genocide. She would rather be “caught trying,” than do nothing. The Times quotes an aide as saying Clinton was aware of the risks, but in Libya (and Syria, as well) she proved more inclined to act than Obama, even if she didn’t know how it would turn out. The question is whether in some cases there is more risk associated with action than inaction. As horrible as it was, the Rwandan genocide did not threaten U.S. strategic interests. On the other hand, the U.S. acted in Iraq — with disastrous results. Is Libya, where the U.S. intervened, all that much better off than Syria, where it did not?

3. Why weren’t you more circumspect about smooth-talking émigrés pushing regime change?
As The Times points out, Clinton approached a key meeting with Libyan émigré leader Mahmoud Jibril with skepticism because of the U.S. experience in Iraq. But Jibril and other opposition figures “said all the right things about supporting democracy and inclusivity and building Libyan institutions,” said one of Clinton’s deputies. They won her over, and the Obama administration, like Bush’s neocons, ended up falling for a hapless group utterly incapable of delivering what it promised. Does the name Ahmad Chalabi ring a bell? What made you think it would be any different this time?

4. How are you going to prevent mission creep when the U.S. does intervene?
Military action against Gaddafi was launched under U.N. auspices to prevent a massacre of the Libyan leader’s opponents. Yet, it continued for months, and without a formal change in mission U.S. and allied warplanes became in effect the Libyan rebels’ air force. The mission became regime change — except you didn’t actually replace the Gaddafi regime with anything. Plus, you alienated the Russians, with consequences that are playing out now in Syria and Ukraine. Mission creep is an old, old problem (see: Vietnam). If your instinct is to intervene, how do you prevent this from happening yet again? 

Libya today is an ungovernable haven for the Islamic State. Still, candidate Clinton says it’s too soon to tell how things will turn out. It seems pretty clear to everyone else.