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

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

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.

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.

Comments (17)

  1. Submitted by joe smith on 03/01/2016 - 10:40 am.

    So the 2 big questions are, how did Hillary and administration misread the Arab Spring so badly and will she repeat it if elected in the fall? Now that Hillary is attaching herself to the hip of Obama to get the black vote, hard for her to be tough on ISIS and Islamic terrorists, will she even say it? The gyrations she is twisting herself into just to beat Bernie is interesting to watch. Typical politician say or do anything to get elected.

  2. Submitted by Dimitri Drekonja on 03/01/2016 - 11:20 am.

    The Times piece is indeed well done; one thing it makes clear is that there were no easy choices, particularly when predictions of eminent civilian massacres where being made and there was a shrinking window where the Libyan govt forces where separated from the rebels and thus vulnerable to mass air strikes. The notion that this massacre was “unlikely” was not one that I recall anyone making forcefully– the troops moving in did not seem to be coming for a nice little get together.

    For me, question 3 is the most concerning– 1 and 4 are pretty standard things all leaders have to deal with– when is it in US interests to be involved, how do we keep any intervention from snowballing. Number 2 is more specific to Clinton herself; after the Rwandan genocide that occurred under Bill Clinton and the subsequent success of the Balkan intervention, it’s a philosophy I can understand. Will it always be correct? Likely not. But if it were as simple as “when in doubt, do something” the Times wouldn’t have had to use all those thousands of words to explain it. Life is more complicated than Trump would like to make it seem.

  3. Submitted by Jim Million on 03/01/2016 - 12:01 pm.

    Not “leading from the front” very well, either

    As for Syria…

    Mark lays the foundation for the French and British (including Tory backbench) refusal to join Pres. Obama in an overt war against Syria.

    Libya was a “cockup” they were not about to repeat on a larger scale. So far, Syria has been mostly another American misadventure. Seems to me that Washington is directing another roadshow that’s about to close.

    Mark, perhaps you might further explain the reasons France and Britain continue to do anything with us in the Middle East.

  4. Submitted by Howard Miller on 03/01/2016 - 01:42 pm.

    instead of questioning HRC, vote for a better choice

    I’m not as interested in Hillary Clinton’s answers to those questions as some might be. I already have decided that Bernie Sanders has the strength of belief, the independence of thought, soundness of analysis and judgment that will make him an excellent president of the United States.
    Bernie listened to the arguments for the Iraq War, and decided the administration’s case for pre-emptive invasion was inadequate, and history has proved Bernie correct in his judgment.

    Instead of wondering if Hillary has finally learned anything from her errors over the years, why not support a candidate who makes the correct decision the first time, when it counts? I believe Bernie has better judgment than Hillary, bottom line. I’m voting for Bernie Sanders at caucus tonight, encourage my fellow citizens of Minnesota to do the same.

  5. Submitted by joe smith on 03/01/2016 - 02:22 pm.

    Mr Miller, how is Bernie going to bring back jobs?

    I hear Bernie talk about the 1% making all the money, how is he going to bring back good paying jobs to the USA? Taking money from the rich (his mantra) will not help a part time worker making $12.50 an hour unless he plans on supplementing all jobs with Govt money. He wants to tax the evil companies more, how will that make big manufacturers hire more workers and bring back jobs from overseas? We need a vibrant middle class, with growing salaries that can support a family. With Bernie’s plan I see free college with no jobs for those 22 year olds.

    I agree on Hillary and not worrying about whether she learned a lesson or not. I just haven’t figured out how Bernie is going to take our current economy with an all time high of part time workers, 94M work age folks not in the job force, record amount of folks on welfare, middle class incomes declining steady and turn it around.

  6. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 03/01/2016 - 02:50 pm.

    Partisan rhetoric

    …aside, the takeaway from Libya – indeed, from the Middle East in general – seems to be that foreign policy is complicated, and not readily amenable to the sorts of simple solutions offered by campaign sound bites, or by those in thrall to either “regime change” or a military response. There are very good reasons not to take any of the candidates too seriously in the foreign policy area during election season, no matter who they end up being. For the most part, that holds true for any and every candidate at the national level who’s up for election, whether it be House, Senate or the Presidency. In every foreign policy scenario, there is always much that’s beyond our control.

  7. Submitted by Joel Stegner on 03/01/2016 - 03:17 pm.

    Why talk about Hillary right now?

    Trump is spouting Mussolini and advocating war crimes. Cruz talks about carpet bombing. Rubio is waiting for his speech writers to give him new talking points on foreign policy. So instead of subjecting both parties candidates to the same scrutiny for their foreign policy wisdom, this author is writing yet another tactful hatchet job on Hillary, Monday morning quarterbacking a situation after the dust settles. Traditional US foreign policy has involved promoting dictators, even if they are tyrants, killing their own people and supporting our opponents to achieve “stability.” How well has that worked out?

    We believe in democracy, not dictators – although for those who support Trump or admire Putin,, I’m not quite sure about that. We deposed a bad guy. How is Libya any different from Iraq or Afghanistan? We can win the battle consistently, but lose the war because we don’t really have enough knowledge about the Islam world to understand that it will react negatively when we intervene. We keep thinking things will settle down on their own, but they don’t.

    The road to democracy is rough – it took many years for us to secure ourst – past the War of 1812 and in some senses the Civil War.. This is like a long chess game in which one makes some bad moves, but recovers if one learns from mistakes. Leaving dictators in place is a big mistake.

    Give me a single instance in which a dictator maintaining power is in our best interests, and maybe I’ll reconsider..Please journalists – quit bringing up old issues and reporting the horse race and give us substance on which we can make informed choices.

    • Submitted by Charles Holtman on 03/01/2016 - 06:05 pm.

      It is desirable for a dictator to maintain power

      Until there is enough of a civil society to provide for stability when that dictator is removed.

      If we as a nation seek to promote peaceable self-governance and prosperity around the world, our strategy should be to do things that advance civil society within authoritarian states (through numerous modes of action), and to very carefully judge when it is time to assist that society in dispensing with its authoritarian governance.

      I would think Saddam, Ghadafi, Assad are just a few recent examples that should give one pause about simply going about toppling dictators without concern for what will fill the vacuum.

      • Submitted by Doug Gray on 03/03/2016 - 11:11 am.

        desirable for whom?

        Not for the people who, without much if any urging from “the West,” rose up to overthrow that dictator. By that logic the US should have bombed them and supplied arms to Ghadafi. The problem in Libya, like Syria, was that a dictator had lost a critical mass of credibility and was being violently opposed by the people of his nation. Throw in the varied interests of the EU, Russia, the US, Shiites, Sunnis, Jehovah’s Witnesses, ISIS, Al-Qaeda, the JDL and the SPCA and, well, you have one hell of a mess.

        And that’s the trouble with the Times piece. The decisions–and consequences–faced in such a situation, not to say such a world, are more complicated than doing more/doing less, helping our side/helping the enemy, or supporting tinpot tyrants/supporting Jeffersonian democrats. Counsel is understandably divided, not only between us and our “allies,” but within our own government and even within government departments. When a handful of journalists (aka historians in a hurry) reduce it all to “Hillary: Yes or No,” not even all the decisionmakers’ interviews can put the shattered context back together again.

  8. Submitted by Connie Sullivan on 03/01/2016 - 03:41 pm.

    It’s nice of the NYTimes to devote so much attention to a past diplomatic dilemma that only one of the candidates for President this year has had to deal with: former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. The rest of them, including Bernie Sanders, who never had to do more about Libya than tsk-tsk about it, have no “responsibility” because they weren’t players. At all.

    Foreign policy ends up being the area that makes or breaks a President, no matter what platform of issues a candidate runs on in the campaign and especially the domestic issues that so dominate the American public’s real attention. And in 2016, one shivers at the thought of anyone having to face the issues Barack Obama (not just Secretary Clinton) has faced on the international scene, as President. The intricacy of the issue of Libya–note all the words the Times had to devote to this–is simply beyond the ken of any of the Republican candidates, and since Bernie Sanders has zero experience in foreign policy, this is kind of like “piling on” a talented quarterback.

    Former Secretary Clinton at least knows the fierce international tensions and conundrums our President will face. She stands out head and shoulders above the current pack. Think of it: President Rubio dealing with the intricacies of French diplomatic strategy? Donald Trump trying to play a fast one on a Saudi prince, or even understand him? Bernie Sanders trying to persuade Iran or Turkey to go our recommended route? Ted Cruz trying to control Israel?

    • Submitted by Charles Holtman on 03/01/2016 - 06:11 pm.

      A President sells the administration’s policies to the public.

      Those whom the President appoints work with the President to establish those policies and then carry them out.

      I trust Mr. Sanders’ character, judgment and long view in making those appointments. Meanwhile, the once/twice/thrice discredited neocons are emerging from their dank places and inching closer to Ms. Clinton, and it is not at all clear that she would intend to repel them.

    • Submitted by Doug Gray on 03/02/2016 - 10:16 am.


      Not having yet read the NY Times piece, but everything I have heard around Hillary and Libya puts me in mind of the saying about success having a hundred parents while failure is an orphan. Discount the resume polishing of the largely uninvolved and most of what is left is the administration of a nation nearly undone by two largely needless wars of choice trying to deal with the chaos it largely inherited and being mostly let down by its feckless “allies” (who are now reaping their own whirlwind). And to attempt to trace the chain of causation of the deaths of four US diplomats back to geopolitics similarly ignores much of the context around that tragic event.

      • Submitted by Jim Million on 03/02/2016 - 06:01 pm.

        My Understanding

        The issue of debate seems to have been to determine “the context” of the deaths, not the broader geopolitics of Libya or the Near East.

        • Submitted by Doug Gray on 03/02/2016 - 07:57 pm.

          The context is the US has interests around the world, including in a lot of countries that are not safe places for US citizens. Diplomats get sent to those places to protect those interests. Sometimes — when they overrate their own ability to deal with the local situation, or when Congress fails to appropriate enough to ensure their protection, or when bad actors decide to attack them, or all three — those diplomats die. The four who died in Benghazi weren’t the first to do so; they will not be the last. Exploiting those tragic, however inevitable, deaths for political purposes is appalling, however predictable.

          • Submitted by Jim Million on 03/05/2016 - 05:12 pm.

            beg to differ a bit….

            I believe the context is less complicated in this story. To me, it’s about what was happening in Libya for what undisclosed reasons, including what specifically was happening in the Stevens meeting lacking preventive security plans.

            It’s really as simple as that: no great conspiracy, but likely typical bureaucratic dysfunction regarding somewhat “off the reservation” activity.

            It’s a very fair premise to question any department’s lack of oversight and lapse in security.
            I know many wish to devise more complicated motives, in part, because the administration’s immediate reaction was juvenile, not even reaching the level of sophomoric. Of course reasonable minds had images of red flags.

            Someday we will know exactly why Amb. Stevens was there, what topics and purpose he was there to discuss, etc. Someday we may also know more about the leaked possibility of sexual violation, apparently supressed for good reason [the missing period in the Consulate].

            We all of age know the difference between not doing the job well vs. somehow covering up for a job not well done.

            Where I come from, we call that “denial, refusal of incompetence,” not malice.
            The big shots, beginning with Sec. Clinton, should simply have admitted “We screwed up.”
            At the time, neither the President nor the Secretary had gravitas to say simply that.

            And, I truly believe “that’s that.”

          • Submitted by Doug Gray on 03/07/2016 - 10:47 am.


            AFAIK Ambassadors are in charge of their own security. Amb. Stevens had the security he wanted. He decided to remain in Benghazi overnight, again afaik against the advice of his own security staff. And while the security of diplomats and their offices is the responsibility of the host government — sorely lacking in the case of Libya — there were known shortcomings in the security profile of the Consulate and Annex, partly due to their being treated as temporary facilities which State did not have the — Congressionally appropriated — funds to harden further. And why anyone would be shocked to learn the CIA had a presence in Libya at the time is, frankly, beyond me; as is how any of this would be the fault of the President or Secretary of State, neither of whom had any knowledge of Amb. Steven’s trip or the dastardly attack on him and his staff until it was far to late for anyone to do anything about it.

  9. Submitted by Ilya Gutman on 03/02/2016 - 09:45 pm.

    What Clinton did in Libya was “worth than a crime, it was a mistake,” as Joseph Fouché once called one of Napoleon’s actions (except then the results were much less disastrous). I have always said that Libya’s bombing is a much greater Clinton’s fault than Benghazi because it is a strategic mistake rather than a tactical one and showed her complete lack of judgment which, in turn, makes her unqualified to be American President. So her “experience” mantra should be considered a negative thing rather than positive since the results of her tenure as a Secretary of State are catastrophic.

    As for reality, there was no need to interfere in Libya which was not a threat to any American ally or an ally of any American foe but it was necessary to interfere in Syria which was (and is) the exact opposite (an ally of an enemy and a threat to allies). Let alone that bombing the weak and being afraid of bombing the strong is the exactly opposite message America wants to send out… Of course, this is all as much Obama’s fault as Clinton’s but Obama is not running…

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