Hillary Clinton: 'Failure' to Help Syrian Rebels Led to the Rise of ISIS

JG: But we didn’t stick around for the aftermath.

HRC: Well, we did stick around. We stuck around with offers of money and technical assistance, on everything from getting rid of some of the nasty stuff he left behind, to border security, to training. It wasn’t just us, it was the Europeans as well. Some of the Gulf countries had their particular favorites. They certainly stuck around and backed their favorite militias. It is not yet clear how the Libyans themselves will overcome the lack of security, which they inherited from Qaddafi. Remember, they’ve had two good elections. They’ve elected moderates and secularists and a limited number of Islamists, so you talk about democracy in action—the Libyans have done it twice—but they can’t control the ground. But how can you help when you have so many different players who looted the stuffed warehouses of every kind of weapon from the Qaddafi regime, some of which they’re using in Libya, some of which they’re passing out around the region?

So you can go back and argue either, we should we have helped the people of Libya try to overthrow a dictator who, remember, killed Americans and did a lot of other bad stuff, or we should have been on the sidelines. In this case we helped, but that didn’t make the road any easier in Syria, where we said, “It’s messy, it’s complicated, we’re not sure what the outcome will be.” So what I’m hoping for is that we sort out what we have learned, because we’ve tried a bunch of different approaches. Egypt is a perfect example. The revolution in Tahrir Square was not a Muslim Brotherhood revolution. It was not led by Islamists. They came very late to the party. Mubarak falls and I’m in Cairo a short time after, meeting the leaders of this movement, and I’m saying, “Okay, who’s going to run for office? Who’s going to form a political party?” and they’re saying, “We don’t do that, that’s not who we are.”

And I said that there are only two organized groups in this country, the military and the Muslim Brotherhood, and what we have here is an old lesson that you can’t beat somebody with nobody. There was a real opportunity here to, if a group had arisen out of the revolution, to create a democratic Egyptian alternative. Didn’t  happen. What do we have to think about? In order to do that better, I see a lot of questions that we have to be answering. I don’t think we can draw judgments yet. I think we can draw a judgment about the Bush administration in terms of overreach, but I don’t know that we can reach a conclusion about underreach.

Hillary Cliinton poses with Libyan soldiers in the fall of 2011. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

JG: There is this moment in your book, in which Morsi tells you not to worry about jihadists in the Sinai—he says in essence that now that a Muslim Brotherhood government is in charge, jihadists won’t feel the need to continue their campaign. You write that this was either shockingly sinister or shockingly naïve. Which one do you think it was?

HRC: I think Morsi was naïve. I’m just talking about Morsi, not necessarily anyone else in the Muslim Brotherhood. I think he genuinely believed that with the legitimacy of an elected Islamist government, that the jihadists would see that there was a different route to power and influence and would be part of the political process. He had every hope, in fact, that the credible election of a Muslim Brotherhood government would mean the end of jihadist activities within Egypt, and also exemplify that there’s a different way to power.

The debate is between the bin Ladens of the world and the Muslim Brotherhood. The bin Ladens believe you can’t overthrow the infidels or the impure through politics. It has to be through violent resistance. So when I made the case to Morsi that we were picking up a lot of intelligence about jihadist groups creating safe havens inside Sinai, and that this would be a threat not only to Israel but to Egypt, he just dismissed this out of hand, and then shortly thereafter a large group of Egyptian soldiers were murdered.

JG: In an interview in 2011, I asked you if we should fear the Muslim Brotherhood—this is well before they came into power—and you said, ‘The jury is out.” Is the jury still out for you today?

HRC: I think the jury would come back with a lesser included offense, and that is a failure to govern in a democratic, inclusive manner while holding power in Cairo. The Muslim Brotherhood had the most extraordinary opportunity to demonstrate the potential for an Islamist movement to take responsibility for governance, and they were ill-prepared and unable to make the transition from movement to responsibility. We will see how they respond to the crackdown they’re under in Egypt, but the Muslim Brotherhood itself, although it had close ties with Hamas, for example, had not evidenced, because they were kept under tight control by Mubarak, the willingness to engage in violent conflict to achieve their goals. So the jury is in on their failure to govern in a way that would win the confidence of the entire Egyptian electorate. The jury is out as to whether they morph into a violent jihadist resistance group.

JG: There’s a critique you hear of the Obama administration in the Gulf, in Jordan, in Israel, that it is a sign of naiveté to believe that there are Islamists you can work with, and that Hamas might even be a group that you could work with. Is there a role for political Islam in these countries? Can we ever find a way to work with them?

HRC: I think it’s too soon to tell. I would not put Hamas in the category of people we could work with. I don’t think that is realistic because its whole reason for being is resistance against Israel, destruction of Israel, and it is married to very nasty tactics and ideologies, including virulent anti-Semitism. I do not think they should be in any way treated as a legitimate interlocutor, especially because if you do that, it redounds to the disadvantage of the Palestinian Authority, which has a lot of problems, but historically has changed its charter, moved away from the kind of guerrilla resistance movement of previous decades.

I think you have to ask yourself, could different leaders have made a difference in the Muslim Brotherhood’s governance of Egypt? We won’t know and we can’t know the answer to that question. We know that Morsi was ill-equipped to be president of Egypt. He had no political experience. He was an engineer, he was wedded to the ideology of top-down control.

JG: But you’re open to the idea that there are sophisticated Islamists out there?

Presented by

Jeffrey Goldberg is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and a recipient of the National Magazine Award for Reporting. He is the author of Prisoners: A Story of Friendship and Terror. More

Before joining The Atlantic in 2007, Goldberg was a Middle East correspondent, and the Washington correspondent, for The New Yorker. He was previouslly a correspondent for The New York Times Magazine and New York magazine. He has also written for the Jewish Daily Forward and was a columnist for The Jerusalem Post.

Goldberg's book Prisoners was hailed as one of the best books of 2006 by the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Slate, The Progressive, Washingtonian magazine, and Playboy. He received the 2003 National Magazine Award for Reporting for his coverage of Islamic terrorism and the 2005 Anti-Defamation League Daniel Pearl Prize. He is also the winner of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists prize for best international investigative journalist; the Overseas Press Club award for best human-rights reporting; and the Abraham Cahan Prize in Journalism.

In 2001, Goldberg was appointed the Syrkin Fellow in Letters of the Jerusalem Foundation, and in 2002 he became a public-policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C.

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